Authors: Dan Bongino
Both the classroom and firearms instructors were knowledgeable, and all had fascinating stories to tell of traveling the world with presidents from Nixon to Clinton. During breaks in training we would crowd around and listen to their surreal tales. The instructors were all openly proud of their service and the agency that had become such an important part of their lives, and it carried over to the students. The Secret Service has a culture specific to it and it alone due to its incomparable dual mission of protection and multifaceted investigations. Embedding this culture within every student trainee is an important goal of every instructor, a fact I was to be reminded of repeatedly when I was to return as an instructor years later.
One instructor every agent in my training class remembered is Dan E. Dan later penned a piece about his time in the Secret Service and was as tough a human being as I had ever encountered. A former US Marine, he would not hesitate to kick sand in your face on the tough 200-yard obstacle course if he felt you were not giving it a 100 percent effort. He respected the hard workers but had no time for malingerers or excuse seekers. This made him a favorite target for management’s ire, as they did not appreciate his candor. Ironically, as I began to comment publicly about the Secret Service over a decade later during my campaign for the US Senate, most of the media outlets that would ask for an interview would call either me or Dan, depending on who was available.
Explaining the course was always a bore when I would call home and tell friends about my daily schedule, but learning about the secrets buried in something as ordinary as a dollar bill was eye opening. We walked through the process of making money, spending time at a secret facility where the proprietary paper used to print our currency is made, then
following the paper to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, DC, to watch it turn into US currency. It was during this part of the training that I experienced the thrill of my first ride in an airplane. Growing up in a financially struggling family, air travel had never been an option for me.
Classes on credit card fraud were detailed and more complex than the other coursework. Stealing someone’s credit card information was once a simple endeavor that has evolved into a technologically sophisticated criminal enterprise. When credit cards were first introduced to the US market, businesses would manually process them using paper carbon copies of the card. When these copies were thrown away, criminals saw an opportunity and the art of “Dumpster diving” evolved. Criminals would steal the carbon copy slips with the credit card numbers on them from the Dumpsters of businesses and then make fake credit cards with the stolen numbers. With the dawn of fully electronic processing, more sophisticated theft techniques emerged. We learned about “skimming,” where the criminal takes your credit card during a transaction and swipes it through the business processor and then through his own device, which stores the information from the magnetic strip. The information from the magnetic strip is then electronically coded onto a new card.
In addition to the financial crimes courses, we were slowly introduced to the methods the Secret Service employs in its best-known responsibility: protecting the president. The AOP (assault on principal) training, where an actor playing the role of the president was subjected to various attack scenarios, was intense and could get painful. Each day was a new scenario where our unfortunate role player would be shot at, stabbed, punched, harassed, and generally manhandled for most of the simulations. The Secret Service prefers realism in its training environment and uses weapons that fire “Simunition” bullets. Simunition cartridges feature plastic bullets that are harder than traditional paintballs and contain a waxy, colored substance that lets others know you have been shot. You, on the other hand, know
when you have been shot with a Simunition round because it is extremely painful, and being hit in sensitive areas such as the hands is an experience you will not forget, especially in cold weather when the wax hardens. Training with these rounds teaches new agents to quickly get behind cover and not to be “cowboys.”
During one particular exercise in the Secret Service tactical village, our protectee came under a full assault from some of the instructors. I remember being hit over and over, scrambling to find cover quickly. I managed to fit my six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame behind a fire hydrant on the street and fire back, hitting one of the instructors at least three times. He backed off, we managed to keep the “president” alive for the exercise, and I acquired a collection of twenty-plus deep purple welts as a reminder of my lesson that day.
Our training class was scheduled to graduate in December of 1999, and the tension in the law-enforcement community throughout the country was high. The fear of a worldwide computer network collapse in the Y2K scare engrossed the nation, and the threat of terrorism was growing exponentially. My class was anxious to graduate and get out in the field to work. Final exams and the final physical fitness test were on everyone’s mind.
The physical fitness training in the Secret Service is intense, and five areas are tested in order to graduate: maximum sit-ups and push-ups in one minute, maximum chin-ups (no time limit), a flexibility test, and the one-and-a-half-mile run. I was desperate to receive a mark of “excellent” on all the components of the test and was well above the standards for my age in every one but the run, where I hovered just seconds above the required completion time for a score of “excellent” (ten minutes and sixteen seconds). In between studying for the final exams in protection, protection intelligence, and financial crimes, I ran at every opportunity.
I enjoyed my runs with Sean, a classmate and former military policeman, who was amusingly robotic in his approach to any task. He viewed any problem or task unemotionally and had earned the class’s respect for his ability to stay calm and adapt to any obstacle thrown at us. I ran with him often because, despite the weather or our fatigue, he never complained, and this kept me focused.
I was anxious on the day of the final physical fitness test. I felt I could not leave the academy without excelling in every category, and the run was weighing heavily on me. The run was the last portion of the test that day and it was freezing and raining, which made it increasingly difficult to breathe. I exerted myself fully in the other components and nearly doubled the requirements for an excellent score, but I was tiring myself out. As
I began the run, my breathing was labored within the first quarter mile, yet I ran at a pace far exceeding my comfort zone. And I paid the price: the second and third quarter miles felt like running through wet concrete. My legs felt like anchors, but I was not going to graduate without the satisfaction of completing this goal. The last quarter mile was as painful an experience as I can remember, and I knew if I slowed down for even a step I would fall short of the required time. I gathered a final bit of stored energy and sprinted the last fifty yards to the finish line. The instructor yelled out “ten-sixteen.” The training experience ended on a high note.
LTHOUGH I BEGAN
my Secret Service career in the New York field office, I was notified after graduating from the training program that I would be transferred to the Melville, New York, field office. The news was a disappointment; I planned on relocating back into the city I grew up in and working in the field office there. Tom was also the recipient of some unexpected news, as he was transferred to our office at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens.
Both Tom and I understood that the majority of the high-profile criminal investigations and protection assignments originated in the New
York City office, it being the Secret Service’s flagship office. The Melville field office—located in Suffolk County, about thirty miles outside the city—had a reputation for being “slow.” Some of my New York agent friends called it the “Melville Country Club.” This reputation quickly changed in September of 1999 when then President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, purchased a home in the sleepy Westchester town of Chappaqua, New York. Rumors soon swirled that the first lady would seek the United States Senate seat of a New York icon, retiring Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The agent in charge of the Melville field office, Marty, was a “by the book” manager. He was a deeply religious and principled man who supported his men and the Secret Service mission with vigor and a sense of duty. When Marty heard of the Clinton’s purchase of the Chappaqua home, he knew a firestorm was headed his way. A run for the US Senate by the wife of the sitting president of the United States would have been a protective workload of enormous consequence for the agents and management of the New York field office, but they had the personnel to support it. The Melville field office had only nine agents. We simply did not have the manpower to support frequent campaign visits by Mrs. Clinton, and on top of that, most of the agents in the office had fewer than two years of Secret Service protection experience. A visit by the first lady was an incredibly detailed and elaborate operation that was typically left to veteran agents who had experience with the Presidential Protective Division (PPD).
The PPD was psychologically intense, and the agents in it typically had a minimum of seven years of experience and were hand-selected as the best of the best. They had no tolerance for rookie agents with no experience in “the big show” (a term some PPD agents would use for presidential protection). To further complicate an already-difficult operational requirement, there was no historical precedent for this. No current first lady had ever run for office before, and any protection model would have to be created with complex political concerns in mind.
Security is not as simple as placing a protectee in a bulletproof glass box. Security plans must be designed to guarantee a degree of protection while still allowing access to the principal. When that principal is a candidate for political office, it adds necessary layers of access not required of other protectees, because the fear of losing an election makes both
candidates and their staff act in strange ways.
I could see from our initial meeting with Scott, a polished and well-respected PPD agent assigned to the first lady, that this assignment was going to require an “on-the-job” training component that was nothing resembling the traditional program the Secret Service implemented for its new agents. I was going to have to learn quickly how to use my knowledge from the classroom in real, high-stakes situations, and the consequences of failure were unthinkable. Reputation management in the Secret Service is a skill you must learn quickly. Complaining about work conditions is frowned upon, and the peer pressure on those who choose to violate this credo is oppressive. Dealing with the PPD this early in my career could have been a great opportunity, or it could have been the end of my career. If I excelled, I would have done so in the eyes of fellow agents who, due to their seniority and prestigious position on the PPD, would likely have been my supervisors in the near future. But if I failed, it would have done the kind of damage that could not have been undone. There were also considerations in dealing with the numerous local police departments in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties. Their cooperation was paramount to our success. They all had their own ideas of how to properly secure perimeters and conduct motorcades, and I quickly learned how to conduct domestic diplomacy among our law-enforcement partners.
I was both excited and humbled to be embedded in the Clinton campaign and on the front lines of what was to become the most expensive Senate campaign in US history. Not a week passed without a notification from PPD operations in Washington that we should expect a visit from the first lady, and days off were nonexistent. She was not polling well on Long Island and although she did not need to win the two Long Island counties, it was important that she perform well there. The political drama surrounding the campaign was intense and the campaign quickly turned into a national referendum on the Clintons.
Clinton’s original opponent, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, dropped his bid for the seat early in the summer of 2000, yet her campaign still faced challenges. Charges of “carpetbagger” (oddly enough a weak charge that would be leveled at me in my run for the US Senate in 2012) were constant, but watching the Clinton machine in action from behind the scenes was a like a PhD-level course in campaign
management. Even seemingly innocuous issues became front-page stories. The campaign’s selection of a vehicle, typically a nonissue in both the Secret Service and the press, became a story when they selected a two-tone brown Ford conversion van, which was far different from the fleet of black limousines the president and his family typically use. Within the Secret Service, the vehicle became affectionately known as “Scooby-Doo” due to its brown color. Looking back on the decision to select that dull brown van, I view it as a stroke of political genius. Every news outlet photo of Mrs. Clinton’s arrivals was of her exiting this rather middle-class-looking van. This stuck with me years later during my own run for office, and I would constantly tell my team that campaigns are about “sound bites and snapshots.” Short quotes and pictures tell a story to a busy collection of voters that long speeches can never do.
The Clintons had a close inner circle and wanted everything done their way, with few exceptions. This being my first political campaign on the “inside,” I was initially disturbed at the level of sycophantic behavior from elected officials desperate to be associated with a winner. Whenever the Clinton staff would publicly release her plans to be on Long Island, the phone calls to Marty would begin. Every locally elected official on the Democratic side of the political fence would call looking for access, which Marty had no intention of granting, and when Mrs. Clinton arrived they would all line up like schoolchildren desperate to appear in a picture that would run in the newspaper. Observing this on a weekly basis left a stain in my heart regarding the true motivations of those who sought public office, one that has yet to be washed away.