Authors: Dan Bongino
When Long Island congressional representative Rick Lazio became the likely Republican nominee, replacing Rudy Giuliani, the pressure to salvage votes on Long Island became that much more intense for the Clinton campaign. In addition to the increasing number of visits to the area controlled by our small Secret Service office, the pressure of dealing with the local police became an issue.
Security is an art form, not a science, and for both practical and political reasons, the campaign did not want to burden all the local police assets each time they visited the area. The Clinton team did not want to drain the local police budgets, and the ever-present issue of the candidate appearing “accessible” created a number of uncomfortable moments in my dealings
with the police. Although protection service was difficult, being part of the constant excitement surrounding a high-profile protectee was something the local police officers enjoyed, and the overtime pay only reinforced their tendency to want to be there when the first lady was in town. Asking the police to stand down when the security was sufficient to not require additional assets was a tough task. They genuinely wanted to help, and having been a uniformed police officer myself, I understood their position.
The campaign grew more difficult as we closed in on Election Day in November. The pressure to win was intense. A loss would tarnish the Clinton name and end a potential second legacy before it could begin. The tension was especially evident among the staff. I found the staff to be complete political opposites from my conservative leanings, but they were dedicated, loyal supporters of their cause and I quietly admired that.
My admiration for their dedication aside, we clashed frequently during the last few months of the campaign. Their job is to get their candidate elected and, although security is a concern for them, our methods are often misunderstood. Secret Service agents are responsible for reading over intelligence reports, speaking with the local police, and using their experience and training to put together a security plan with respect for the protectee’s needs. The staff seemed to think some of our methods were unnecessary, and the battles became tiresome. I received a stern reprimand from Marty for one particular method I thought was a clever way to solve a security issue we were having at a local university.
I was assigned to secure an indoor speech site for Mrs. Clinton on a university campus and I noticed immediately that there was an adjacent building with windows that had a direct line of sight to the stage. Life as a Secret Service agent teaches you to quickly look at everything as a potential problem. If a gunman were to be stationed in one of those rooms he would be well within rifle range, and that concerned me greatly. I did not have enough security personnel between the campus police and the Secret Service agents to station someone in that building, so I had to devise a creative solution.
After a few hours of walking through the site with the problem churning in my mind, I had a eureka moment. I thought: fake snow.
I had remembered my mother painting our windows in the apartment above the bar with sprayed-on fake snow. I asked the host from the
university if he wouldn’t mind purchasing some cans of fake snow and spraying the windows to block the line of sight from the building. She agreed and did not appear bothered in any way by my request. On the day of the visit I patiently waited in front of the scheduled arrival area for the motorcade to arrive, always the most anxiety-ridden part of a visit. I said a short prayer hoping for the best, as I always did, and the motorcade approached and stopped on the exact spot we had rehearsed. I led the swarm of agents, staffers, host committee members and local politicians into the room and as I looked up at the windows, I saw to my dismay that they had a black coating that did not in any way resemble the fake snow we discussed. Putting this information aside, I focused on the rest of the visit, listened to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks, guided her through an uneventful rope line full of excited students, and led her back to the car.
Proud of my work for the visit, I thanked everyone and gathered my equipment and left. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I had caused a stir on the campus. In lieu of fake snow, the university had purchased black spray paint and painted the windows with it. The university maintenance staff had tried desperately to remove it but was having a difficult time. The university staff then called Marty to thank him for the cooperation and mentioned the paint. Marty was upset about it and let me know immediately. I learned that day that when the Secret Service requests something, it was going to get done, but it was my responsibility to ensure it was done without undue burden. I apologized to the university and carried that lesson with me.
On election night of 2000 my campaign experience with the Clintons was coming to a close. It was bittersweet. I not only learned valuable lessons about our methodologies from the PPD agents assigned to the first lady, I also learned a lot about myself. I pushed myself harder than I ever had in my life and had come through it unscathed. After all the visits, motorcades, travels, and threats, Mrs. Clinton was alive and well, with not even a close call during the campaign.
But there was no rest for our weary bodies on election night, as the Melville field office was assigned to work the Hyatt in New York City, where Mrs. Clinton, her staff, and crowd of supporters would gather to monitor the returns. Personally I hoped for a national Republican victory that night, and held out hope that the party could also take the New York Senate seat.
Although I would have forfeited my life proudly for Mrs. Clinton in my role as a Secret Service agent, I was still a Republican and knew the party needed a win both nationally and in New York. That night I was receiving minute-by-minute updates on all the ongoing races from the Clinton staff, who the whole time were feigning disinterest in order to not create a scene in the event Mrs. Clinton lost. Adding to the chaos of the night, our handheld metal detector failed at the checkpoint I was manning, and I was forced to have to manually pat down incoming guests. My first victim happened to be actor Ben Affleck, who was good-hearted about it.
As the night wore on and exit poll results came in, it became apparent that the first lady would be declared the winner. When the race was called for Mrs. Clinton it seemed like the entire hotel shook in elation. I was politically disappointed but touched by the outpouring of genuine emotion from the campaign staff I had come to know well. It was clear that they believed in their cause as passionately as I believed in mine. But the presidential election was an entirely different story.
I was relieved by another agent late that night and headed to my room still unclear as to who the next president was going to be, Texas governor George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore. This decision had potent ramifications for me both politically and personally. The Clinton staff was confidently telling me that Gore “had it,” but some of the skeptical ones were quietly saying that it was “not over.” When Florida was declared for Gore by some media outlets, I was devastated. I felt that the obituary for the Republican Party had just been written.
I awoke the following day thinking that the first lady had won her race for New York’s Senate seat and that our new president was Al Gore. To my astonishment when I turned on the television cable news channel, Florida was back in the “undecided” column. What followed was nearly a month of speculation and well-documented political theater, which had very real consequences for the Secret Service. With no margin for error in their planning, the Secret Service was forced to plan for a presidential security footprint for two presidents-elect, George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Planning for one presidential transition is difficult enough, within both the White House and the Secret Service, but planning for two was a situation that had never been considered. The chaos ended in mid-December 2000 when the Supreme Court halted the recount of the presidential ballots and George W. Bush was declared the winner.
EPTEMBER 11, 2001
, was a quiet, calm morning in our Long Island office. Tony, Joe, and I were planning a search warrant and arrest for an Internet fraudster who was “selling” diamonds on eBay (without the actual diamonds). While discussing the arrest logistics of the operation, Tom, a senior agent within the office who had developed a reputation for calm and who loved to say, “Take it easy” every time he felt an agent was getting emotional, rushed into my office shouting, “Someone just bombed the World Trade Center.” He had been on the phone with our New York office located in 7 World Trade Center
as the first plane struck the North Tower, and the New York dispatcher he was speaking to believed it to be a bomb.
Collectively stunned that the World Trade Center had been attacked again (Muslim terrorists had detonated a truck bomb in its underground garage in 1993), we dropped our arrest paperwork and rushed into the rear of the office where Marty had a cable news channel on … and nothing. There was no mention of any bomb at the World Trade Center. Marty began to change the channels and I remember as he stopped at the show
he looked up and said, “I don’t see anything.”
At that point, we saw the dreaded “Breaking News” scroll across the screen and a live newscaster interrupt the program, clearly unprepared for what he was about to say. I don’t recall any of his words or the words of anyone else in the room at that time, as I was transfixed on the television screen. There was a live image of a gaping hole in the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center that appeared surreal. I had just been with some Secret Service friends at the Windows on the World restaurant on the top floors of the North Tower the week prior and had been marveling at the incredible 360-degree views. I also began my career with Tom, Lisa, and Don in the lobby of our 7 World Trade Center New York field office, and I frequently reflected on the moment when I ascended the escalator into the World Trade Center plaza on the day I was hired. It was one of my proudest moments, and the plaza always brought back feelings of renewal and goodwill. So it was a surreal image to watch papers and pieces of the building fall into that plaza below. Marty, who rarely showed any emotion and had chastised me many times during my time working for him for wearing my emotions on my sleeve, was clearly as shaken by the attack as the rest of us. His normally stoic face telegraphed the anger we were all feeling but not saying.
The news began reporting that a plane hit the building, and the first words I recall hearing were those of Paul, a new agent to the Melville office who had been a navigator in the US Navy with many hours in flight time, protesting, “There is no way in this weather a plane hit that tower.” The sky was clear blue that morning and there was not a cloud in the sky.
We all watched, hypnotized by the tragedy. Although it was only seventeen minutes after the North Tower was struck that United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower, it felt like days. We watched the
second plane strike the South Tower in horror. I distinctly recall Marty saying “Holy shit!” as an incredible ball of fire screamed out of the opposite side of the tower. I knew, right at that moment, as most Americans did, that our definition of “normal” was about to be discarded. Life in America was now going to be defined in terms of pre-September 11 and post-September 11.
Any talk of the arrest we were planning was quickly forgotten and one of the longest, most emotionally devastating days of my life was just beginning. After quickly discussing with Marty the most effective way for us to help, we decided to drive to our satellite field office at JFK airport in Queens, where Tom was assigned, and begin the process of trying to locate the hundreds of Secret Service personnel who worked at the World Trade Center.
As we left, workers from the other businesses occupying the office building were walking aimlessly in the hallway crying and trying desperately to reach loved ones. The cell phone networks were overloaded, and completing an outgoing call was nearly impossible. The inability to complete a call was taking an emotional toll on me as I frantically attempted to reach my brother Joseph.
Joseph was an emergency medical technician with the New York City Fire Department, and knowing my brother, I was certain he had rushed to lower Manhattan to render aid. My cell phone rang as I opened the car door and I anxiously looked down hoping it was Joseph, but it was my father. I had never known him to be an outwardly emotional man, but he was crying on the phone, clearly with my brother in mind. It would be hours before I would hear from Joseph but regardless, we had to get to the JFK office to help.
At JFK we were met by Manny, a senior agent in the office, who told us that there were hundreds of agents unaccounted for and we should start paging them on their work-issued pagers and cross them off the list as they called into the office. As they called in one by one, they all told stories of unthinkable terror. They all mentioned the horror of witnessing terrified people in the towers who chose to jump rather than burn alive, and the sounds of bodies crashing against the pavement. I could never forget these stories and for years after when I would check into a high-rise hotel, I would look out the window and imagine the horror the victims of this attack felt when making the decision to jump.
There were also tales of heroism that emerged about the brave men and women of the Secret Service’s New York field office who, rather than flee, stayed at the plaza to provide medical aid and assistance. Two agents, John and Tom, who despite multiple warnings ran into the North Tower to evacuate those who could not make it out under their own power, stand out to me as potent examples of the valor exhibited by many that tragic day. Both men were in the North Tower as the South Tower collapsed. They listened to the roar of the collapse and were blinded by dust and debris while trying to descend the North Tower’s poorly lit stairwell. Lives were saved because of these two men, but it’s something they rarely, if ever, discuss. Their heroism was the quiet type.