Life Inside the Bubble: Why a Top-Ranked Secret Service Agent Walked Away From It All (12 page)

The questions from the management team came quickly and covered such areas as tactical countermeasures to an armed assault, medical response, chemical and biological mitigation measures, explosive detection, airborne attack, and many others. I prepared extensively for the briefing, almost as if I were preparing for a difficult college final exam, and answered each question in detail to assuage their fears. I was comfortable with the planning and had walked through the site and the location of all our emergency and law-enforcement assets many times, always keeping in mind the grave consequences of any security failure.

The size of the crowd on Inauguration Day 2009 did not disappoint. In my ten years with the Secret Service to that point, I had attended many high-profile events, yet nothing compared to this. I arrived at 3:00 a.m. and immediately began checking that every door was locked, every window was closed, every magnetometer was working, and every agent was prepared.

It was an unusually cold day and the suit I was wearing did little to block the penetrating wind. As the hours passed, I could barely feel my extremities as the cold pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue drove straight through the leather soles of my shoes. The sun rising in the morning provided a small degree of relief, but that relief was short-lived as we were met by a rush of people waiting to be screened by our magnetometers—screening I would experience for myself as a civilian media commentator for President Obama’s 2012 inauguration.

The security lines to access Pennsylvania Avenue grew by the minute and were becoming increasingly difficult to control. The calls for assistance from agents assigned to my zone were endless, and I believe we were saved only by the gracious nature of the impressive crowd. The crowds remained
calm and in good spirits, despite the long lines, and the atmosphere inside the secure zone was festive.

Although I had staunchly supported Senator John McCain during the election, I felt pride in my country that day. A presidential inauguration is not the time to fight a political fight. I heard the newly inaugurated president’s speech booming over the speakers placed around the city and watched as many of the people in the crowd began to cry. Some of those people did not need to read about the civil rights era in textbooks; they had lived through the pain and indignity of that era, and although those are wounds that may heal, the scars will never disappear. Witnessing the joy in their eyes as they stood in the bitter cold, listening to the words of our first African American president, is an image I will never forget.

It also changed me politically. I came to the painful realization that my political party had done a poor job both acknowledging the lasting scars left behind by this dark period in our collective American history, and communicating the message about their integral role in ending it. Thankfully, most of us will never experience the indignity of institutional racism, but we must, as a country, never forget that the power of government has not always been a repository of good intentions.

It was not long after the conclusion of President Obama’s speech that he moved down the parade route toward my security zone. Working since three in the morning, I was confident that we were ready and I rehearsed the emergency response in my head over and over as he approached. In my earpiece I heard Don, the detail leader, say, “Bongino, coming to you.”

The crowd erupted as the president exited the vehicle with First Lady Michelle Obama and began his walk. The sea of camera flashes was nearly blinding and the excited crowd made it difficult to hear Don through my earpiece. I reassured him that everything was secure as he kept his eyes virtually glued to the president. This was Don’s last time working as a detail leader for the PPD and he was not going to allow any security lapses. Each step of the president’s walk seemed to last an eternity and I was anxious to see him leave my zone of responsibility and enter the viewing stand located just outside the north grounds of the White House. As I watched him leave my area of responsibility safely, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction with the success of the mission and the Secret Service’s role in it.

The media would report later on significant inauguration crowd-control
issues in the Washington, DC, Third Street Tunnel, an incident that later became known as the “Purple Tunnel of Doom,” where numerous “Purple Ticket” holders were denied access. It turned out that the Capitol Police and the Secret Service had two completely different ideas of the role of the tunnel in the overall protection plan, despite months of planning and coordination. This incident was an embarrassment for the Secret Service but the lapse was not with security; it was a logistics and crowd-control failure. This is not meant to minimize the significance of its impact but to discriminate between operational security failures and organizational failures. Having lived through the experience, I attribute the tunnel failure to a recurrent theme within this book: an overly bureaucratic and unnecessarily segmented federal law-enforcement workforce that has a difficult time with interagency communications and coordination, despite the best of intentions.

These problems are all too common and are entirely preventable, but not as our federal government is currently organized. Every additional agency we create in turn creates another agency head whose interests are in protecting its department, its people, and its budget. As a result, missions consistently suffer because the incentives are wrong. Managers think they are doing their duty to protect “their agency” and “their people” when they are really employees of the American people and there to serve a larger mission. These incentives will never change until we pursue a complete overhaul of our federal law-enforcement architecture with a consolidation of agencies and bureaucratic layers. This can be accomplished only through a broad-based initiative designed to allocate scarce taxpayer dollars to law-enforcement priorities rather than individual agency priorities.

The assignment that followed President Obama’s first inauguration was not nearly as historic, but the safety of the president is not tied to any history lesson. The president had scheduled a number of trips outside the White House grounds postinauguration as part of his effort to grow in the role, and I was to be a part of one of them.

When I received a phone call from the operations section regarding a presidential visit to Trinidad, I knew it was too soon for me to conduct the lead advance, but I was pleasantly surprised to be selected to conduct the security advance for the Hilton Hotel the staff chose for the trip. This particular hotel had a reputation in the Secret Service for being extremely
difficult to secure due to its complex layout. It was commonly referred to as the “Upside-Down Hilton.”

The hotel was built into the side of a mountain, and the entrance was located on the top floor and was labeled “L.” The floors below it went up in number as the elevator descended. If you want to go down a floor from the third floor in the Trinidad Hilton, you must press the button for the fourth floor. Although this sounds simple, I often encountered confused guests in the elevators over the course of the two-week advance. The layout of each floor was confusing as well, and many of the emergency evacuation exits would have exposed the president to exterior portions of the building, a factor I deemed unacceptable and worked diligently to design my plan around.

As a general rule, I would never evacuate the president from one attack with unknown variables into another scenario with an unknown outcome. If we evacuate, I want to know exactly where we are going and have a purpose for doing it. Sometimes it is far better to stay and defend what you have rather than try to defend an area you’re not sure you can tactically control.

The president’s arrival in Trinidad was welcomed by the advance team, as many of the team members had become ill during the two-week advance. Surprisingly, given my history of contracting illnesses on foreign soil, I had managed to avoid any serious illness. The initial portion of the visit at the hotel went smoothly because, outside of sleeping, the president spent very little time there. Toward the end of the trip I was informed by Steve, the lead advance, that the president would hold a press conference on the hotel roof during the final hours of the visit and just prior to his departure from the country. I retreated to my hotel room to put together the security plan.

Hotel roofs are some of the most dangerous places from a security standpoint, and holding a press conference there with all of the potential dangers (e.g., sniper fire, high winds) was going to require some creativity. Complicating the situation was the rapid deterioration of my physical condition. After avoiding illness for nearly two weeks, I began to feel very ill, very quickly. Memories of the dengue fever episode still fresh in my mind, I became concerned. With just one more day left in the advance, I was determined to get through it and not become a burden to the team. I
did not want to disappoint and worked late into the night, heavily medicated by the always-helpful doctors from the White House Medical Unit.

When I awoke in the morning, I could barely roll out of the hotel room bed. The idea of putting on a bullet-resistant vest, a wool suit, and a tie in the searing Caribbean heat made the physical pain that much more intense. I took the medication the White House doctor had given me and met with Steve in front of the president’s suite and discussed the plan for the press conference. Steve was an intuitive and caring agent and could immediately see I was not well. I told him I could get through it and he responded by pulling my head close to his and saying, “It’s the fourth quarter; don’t come out of the game now.”

I assured him I would complete the assignment and, although I was running a high fever and sweating profusely, I was comforted by the idea that the trip was just hours from ending. While heading up to the press conference with the president in the elevator, I felt the strange looks from the Secret Service, military, and White House staff as they noticed my pale color and heavy sweating against the backdrop of an artificial smile. Press conferences in foreign countries can run very long, and with each passing minute standing in the hot sun in a suit, wearing the bullet-resistant vest, and carrying nearly twenty pounds of equipment, I became increasingly worried that I might lose consciousness. The ramifications for such a public display of failure would have been devastating to me, and the fear kept me lucid. The feeling of relief when the president concluded his remarks gave me the rush of adrenaline I needed to hurriedly move him down one level via the stairs to the limo and see him off without incident.

The White House photographer, Pete, took an official White House photo of the moment the president entered the vehicle that shows me looking up and loudly asking a guest to close his hotel window. I was sent the picture and when I look at it, I clearly remember how terrible I felt.

Completing the Trinidad Hilton advance allowed me to check a box on my imaginary career “to-do” list. The Secret Service is a remarkable agency that imbues in its agents a loyalty to the mission that far outweighs financial reward. Imagine a private business asking its employees to take on a responsibility commensurate with securing the life of the president of the United States, to work ten to sixteen hours per day without a day off in a foreign country, where your life is constantly in danger, and to
do it all for no additional compensation. This is the life of a PPD lead advance agent assigned to a foreign advance in a high-threat-level country. Yet despite these conditions, PPD agents clamor for the opportunity to be assigned a foreign advance, and the more dangerous the more rewarding. I credit the Secret Service, which, whether intentionally or accidentally, has created this culture where your credibility as an agent depends on your taking on increasing levels of responsibility and rewards those agents who complete the most difficult assignments. The rewards are not material but are largely based on group dynamics and social prestige within the detail. After checking the foreign hotel advance box, I was anxious to move on to lead advance work and was happy to be assigned my first position in Youngstown, Ohio, at a Caterpillar plant.

My first lead advance was what PPD agents called an “in and out,” or a trip where the president was visiting only one location, was on the ground for a short period of time, and did not remain overnight. The visit was made even less complex by the fact that the entire advance team was able to drive to Youngstown from Washington, DC, avoiding travel logistics complications. In addition, the presidential staff made the choice to fly via Marine One directly to an open field just outside the site, which nearly eliminated any chance of a motorcade security threat. It was during this visit that I created a security approach I referred to as a “box within a box.”

The advance team that was assigned to the visit was very talented, but we collectively had a difficult time agreeing on a cost-effective and practical method to secure an enormous Caterpillar plant to presidential security standards. The plant was a security nightmare and contained dangerous chemicals, potentially dangerous equipment, and hundreds of individual office spaces. After lengthy discussions about how to tackle this, I suggested we create a “box within a box.” Using this approach, a security team can allocate scarce law-enforcement and military assets to prioritize and secure only the areas where the protectee will be physically present and designate the outlying areas for electronic and personnel-based surveillance. The site agent skillfully implemented the model using a series of hardened steel containers that created a nearly impenetrable room within the plant where the president could conduct his visit. The trip was successful and I have since written opinion pieces for different outlets describing how the “box within a box” approach can be applied to challenging security
problems such as school security.

It was also on this trip that I had a life-altering conversation with an older, more experienced agent I considered a mentor. Ken and I had become quick friends on the PPD where he had been assigned as a supervisor, and his presence on the Youngstown trip was a bonus. Similar to Steve, the agent I worked with on the Trinidad trip, Ken always had sage advice to pass on, advice that was the result of life experience, work experience, and a keen instinct for when to talk and when to listen. Ken had been assigned to a number of high-profile assignments, including a lengthy stint on Capitol Hill in the office of a prominent senator, and his experiences had changed him, both for the better and the worse.

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