Authors: Dan Bongino
Although I loved my time with the Secret Service and would not have traded the rich experiences and deep, personal friendships with some of my fellow agents for anything, something was missing. Ken sensed my apprehension and, after a day of challenging advance work in Youngstown, I told him that I was thinking about leaving. I did not know for what at the time, but I told him that I felt I had to leave a dent in the world and was unsure if this was the avenue I was supposed to do it through. Ken was a deeply religious but not preachy gentleman, and he told me to pray on it and to look for spiritual guidance. He was clear that you must ask for help and that the answers would be obvious, but only if you have the guts to take the test. It was after this conversation that the idea of politics appeared on my conscious radar screen.
Moving from brief “in and out” visits to high-threat-level foreign advances is a leap in responsibility and stress, and the lead advances I conducted in the aftermath of the Ohio trip helped prepare me for the tasks ahead. After successfully completing lead advance assignments in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Newark, New Jersey; and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with minimal disruptions, our PPD operations section placed me on a list of lead advance agents qualified to conduct foreign advances. I traveled extensively as an agent both on and off of PPD and understood the complications of dealing with foreign governments. I was elated when I received notification that I was selected as the lead advance agent for President Obama’s trip to Jakarta, Indonesia.
This complicated trip was fraught with difficulty from the moment it was announced, and I was honored to be selected considering all the
variables involved. The first problem was the location. Indonesia is over ten thousand miles away from Washington, DC, and with a time difference of twelve hours, communicating with PPD operations from the field would be challenging. The second obstacle was the threat level within the country. The president “imports” an elevated threat level to locations he visits by nature of simply being there. Threats follow us wherever we go, but Indonesia needed no such assistance. They had a homegrown terrorist network in Jemaah Islamiyah, which had successfully planned and implemented a number of serious terrorist attacks, including the deadly Bali bombing in 2002 that killed and injured over two hundred people. The third problem I saw with the visit was not directly related to the security situation or the logistics but the politics. Indonesia was one of the president’s childhood homes and there was going to be intense pressure from all the relevant players to ensure flawless planning and implementation. The president would surely notice mistakes on the visit that may have escaped detection on other trips, and the White House staff, the Secret Service, and the Indonesian military and law-enforcement personnel were well aware that this operation had to be perfect.
We arrived in Indonesia after a series of flights that would test the patience of even the most experienced traveler. After three flights, over twenty hours in the air, and with long layovers in between, we arrived at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport in Indonesia physically exhausted. We were short on time for the security advance given the many complications involved with the visit, and I told the team that we would have to get started shortly after arrival, which was sure to impose misery on an exhausted advance team. The White House staff advance, Carrie, was also aware of the importance of the visit and wanted to start as quickly as possible and she agreed with my decision. The relationship between the White House staff and the Secret Service is inherently adversarial given the conflicting missions, but I found Carrie willing to compromise and felt that she understood the dangerous environment. Carrie accommodated requests that under different circumstances would have likely resulted in a “war of phone calls,” where she would call back to the White House chief of staff’s office in Washington and I would call back to PPD operations warning them to expect a phone call from the chief of staff’s office, a ridiculous but sometimes necessary game of political chess.
The initial meeting with the deputy chief of mission, the embassy staff, and the White House staff went very well, and I sensed that the Indonesians were firmly committed to ensuring a productive and safe trip for the president. The follow-up police meeting with the rest of the Secret Service advance team was an impressive show. The Indonesians had hundreds of law-enforcement and military personnel in attendance and ensured us that this was an “all hands on deck” effort. I was severely jet lagged, but took the stage and proudly introduced our team and explained our requirements to our hosts. The security services in Indonesia were the best they had to offer. They were taken from the elite Paspampres, a group of men chosen from the Indonesian military and assigned to secure the life of the Indonesian president, effectively their Secret Service.
At the time of our visit, the Paspampres were under the charge of a physically impressive figure with a booming voice, General Marciano Norman, the current head of the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency. Norman was close with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (recall my lesson from Panama that in some countries “those who have the guns have the power”), and maintaining a good relationship with him was going to be central to the success of the mission, whereas one wrong calculation with Norman and the success of the visit was in danger. There was very little Norman could not fix if we needed him to, and when Norman spoke it was clear he was speaking on behalf of the Indonesian president. My relationship with Norman, although delicate, helped clear a number of bureaucratic hurdles, which always impacted the degree of progress on any foreign advance. I learned quickly to filter my requests in stages, preparing him slowly for what was sure to be an unprecedented request for intelligence assets, equipment, manpower, and traffic control.
The threat of terrorism and the personal safety of the team was a constant concern for me during the advance. The president receives Secret Service protection, but the Secret Service is not entitled to the same luxury. Force protection became a priority for me, and I met daily with representatives from the Jakarta Shangri-La to see what they were doing to prevent another bombing of the type that occurred at the JW Marriott in South Jakarta in 2003. I could not explain to the family of a fellow Secret Service agent that I lost him or her to an attack because we were so focused on the president’s security that we let our own lapse.
The security in the hotel was under the watch of an American expat who was experienced in modern security methodology. He assured me that the team would be safe in his hotel, and I trusted him. Learning to quickly evaluate and discriminate between the “talkers” and the “doers” was a skill I had refined and I trusted that he was a “doer.” The security operation I planned was to be massive in size and incomparable in its scale and scope. Many of the sites the president would visit were outdoors, including one that posed especially challenging issues. Kalibata Cemetery is a solemn place dedicated to Indonesian’s military heroes, but each time I visited with the White House staff and the Indonesian security team I uncovered a new security nightmare. The president would have an exposed walk to a monument with no easy evacuation route and it was surrounded by high ground, a sniper’s dream. Combined with a long-distance motorcade route from the hotel, this site was going to require a detailed plan and substantial manpower before we could even entertain the idea of visiting there.
After about a week of planning and co-opting nearly every Indonesian military and law-enforcement official available, to the chagrin of my Indonesian counterparts, I was informed that the Indonesian visit might not happen. Carrie told me that the negotiations regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” might prevent the president from traveling and the trip would be rescheduled.
I was stunned by the news, considering the volume of work already dedicated to the visit by all the involved parties. The thought of traveling to the opposite side of the globe, working day and night to ensure the visit went smoothly, and now having it cancelled was devastating. I anxiously awaited notification but suspected that the decision had already been made in the White House. My suspicions were confirmed in the hotel workroom, where I had nearly lived for the week prior, when I turned on the Fox News Channel and heard White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologize to his international hosts and declare that the president would be cancelling his overseas visits to focus on the negotiations over Obamacare. Although it was morning in Washington when the announcement was made official, it was late at night in Indonesia given the twelve-hour time difference.
I was frustrated that the White House staff on the ground in Indonesia had not informed me sooner. International negotiations and diplomacy are
always delicate, and I was sure that General Norman would suspect that I had kept this information from him and that the White House staff in Indonesia had known in advance about the cancellation. I immediately picked up the closest phone in an effort to prevent Norman from learning about the cancellation on the news as well and quickly dialed his assistant Frega’s number. I profusely apologized to Frega and thanked him for his dedication to ensuring a safe visit. Frega was a decent man and said he understood and assured me that there would be no hard feelings with Norman.
Along with the disappointed advance team, I flew the ten thousand miles home upset that I missed a rare opportunity to conquer the PPD’s most difficult task, a foreign security advance in a dangerous corner of the world.
FTER MAKING THE LONG JOURNEY
home from Indonesia, profoundly disappointed at the wasted effort put in by me and the team, I decided to use some of my accrued vacation time to spend time with Paula and our daughter, Isabel.
Since being designated a lead advance agent, I had been traveling domestically and on foreign soil for months and desperately needed some time with my family. My young daughter noticed how much I was gone and when I returned home from Indonesia, she innocently asked me, “Daddy, are you allowed to sleep here tonight?”
She had assumed that my wife and I had separated. Hearing that was emotionally devastating. I had missed so many birthdays and holidays and those are moments that once lost, can never be retrieved. Paula was understanding, but she was beginning to grow frustrated as well. Excited about the time off from the daily rigor, I drove into PPD operations to drop off the secure phones and diplomatic passports assigned to the Indonesia advance team and planned on leaving the office quickly to get home and start my vacation. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
When I walked into the White House complex, Marlon, the supervisor in the operations section, asked me if I was ready to go out again. Confused, I asked him what he meant. He told me that the White House was in the end stages of negotiations regarding the START II treaty, and depending on the results of the negotiations, the president might travel to Prague to sign the treaty with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.
With my interest in foreign policy at its peak, I was following the treaty negotiations closely but strictly out of personal interest; I had no intention of actually becoming part of the story. It never occurred to me that there would be personal ramifications for me at the end of the negotiations. Marlon was being briefed on the status of the negotiations on an hourly basis, and he informed me that PPD management wanted me to conduct the foreign advance in Prague and that I should hold onto my passport and the phones.
The drive home from the White House that day was difficult. I was jet-lagged from the Indonesia trip, and I knew telling Paula that I would have to leave again would be painful for both of us. Although we lived together, we rarely saw one another anymore and her words to me when we were dating and I was transferred from the New York field office to the training center in Maryland were fresh in my mind: “
amor de lejos es amor de pendejos
” or “love from afar is love for fools.”
Unfortunately, when PPD management “asks” you to take on a difficult assignment, they are really not asking. It is expected that you will agree to it without complaint, as even the perception of whining or complaining about assignments can end a career. Before I made it through the garage door to my house, Marlon called and said the trip to Prague was a go and that I should be prepared for an abbreviated advance schedule. I asked him to allow me to pick my advance team due to the short time
I was going to have to secure the visit and sort out the security accommodations we were going to have to make to the Russians, who were also in Prague preparing for their president’s security. The Russians, from my experience, were skilled negotiators.
I selected the most talented advance team I could and the following day we embarked on our trip to Prague. As I left, I could see that Paula was extremely upset. But she saw the fatigue in my face and did not want to contribute any further to my growing frustration with the circumstances, so she wished me well.
My team had one week in Prague to do what was at least two weeks’ worth of work, so we had to work efficiently to keep to our compressed timeline. I was facing long days and nights ahead and was nearing the point of complete exhaustion due to the chaos the constant changing of time zones was having on my internal clock. I survived on strong coffee, and after my initial meeting with the Czech law-enforcement and security personnel, I was confident we could complete the mission successfully.
The Czech security services were skilled operators and it was clear that they knew what needed to be done in a short period of time. Despite the physical and emotional fatigue, the team and I kept a rigorous work schedule and put together a thorough plan. Having been afforded the opportunity by Marlon to personally select my own advance team for the visit had paid dividends in this rushed operation. The men and women I selected were no-nonsense types who were known to work long hours and require little to no supervision. I did not have the time on the visit to micromanage anyone’s individual assignment and did not need to as they performed admirably.