Authors: Dan Bongino
By the late afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, after crossing off name after name on my list of New York field office personnel who could be accounted for, only a few names remained on the list. With each passing minute our fear grew that their phone call would never come. We did not speak of their potential demise openly; we only guessed at possible reasons why they were not answering the pages we sent out. Finally, we received a call from an agent telling us the location of a large block of the missing agents, and we crossed off a swath of names. Some of the agents had evacuated people in boats and made it to New Jersey, but their pagers had fallen off, becoming casualties of the chaos.
Despite the relief that accompanied locating the agents, we still had two names remaining on the list. One was a friend of mine, Kevin, whom I worked with in the Melville office for a brief period. Kevin and Marty were not the best of friends during Kevin’s time in Melville, but they learned to coexist. Kevin was a grizzled veteran who rarely withheld what he was thinking—the exact opposite of Marty, who was difficult to read. I had come to respect Kevin, and the thought of what had potentially happened to him was tough to bear. I was relieved when we received a call notifying us that he had been on assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, and was fine.
There was one name on that list that was never crossed off. As the evening hours approached, it was apparent that Craig Miller was going to be the only member of the Secret Service to never return home after the terrorist attacks. Master Special Officer Craig Miller perished on that fateful day, and given his history of service to this country in both the US Army and the Secret Service, it is thought that he died in the World Trade
Center plaza rendering medical aid to victims when the South Tower collapsed. Craig Miller died a hero in service to his country in a time of need.
Although the planes struck only the North and South Towers, the damage to the surrounding buildings after the collapse was substantial. The New York field office was located on the ninth floor of 7 World Trade Center. As the fires raged in the building it became structurally unsound and by 5:00 p.m. that day it collapsed, taking everything with it. All of the criminal case files, weapons, equipment, radios, armored vehicles, and agents’ personal effects were gone. As I drove home that night from the JFK office, I made one final stop at the Melville office and saw Marty talking to an agent I knew from New York. The agent was coated in the now-infamous white dust from the collapse of the towers and was holding a bag with a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. I asked him why he had the MP5 and he responded, “It may be the only thing that made it out of the building.”
In the days and weeks following the attacks, the pain and horror were compounded by the bitter feelings the special agents of the New York office felt regarding the Secret Service management’s response. As the days passed and our detached leaders, who rarely left their insulated offices in our DC headquarters, did not visit the site of the attack, the anger grew into an open fury rarely seen in an agency proud of its culture of both discipline and secrecy. It was my first taste of the divide between the emotional response of the working-class Secret Service agents and the “cocktail party” managerial class’s callous attitude. Bureaucracy spawns a lack of accountability, and that lack of accountability spawns an indifference that I would later come to learn is endemic within the entire US government.
One leader from Washington who did come to New York was Representative Steny Hoyer. The congressman had a reputation for supporting the Secret Service, and he made multiple visits to our New York office personnel, now scattered around Manhattan in various facilities, to personally express that support. This was my first contact with Representative Hoyer, whom I would later come into contact with in my political career when I endorsed his opponent in the 2012 general election for Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District. Although I disagreed with Representative Hoyer politically, I never forgot his admirable dedication to our cause after those tragic events.
On a deeply personal note, I met my future wife, Paula, just days before 9/11. She worked for the Securities Industry Association (SIA), whose offices were adjacent to the World Trade Center towers. When she did not answer my calls on September 11, I feared she might have been a victim. But in a stroke of luck, she had decided at the last minute to visit her mother in Nevada and was touched by my continued messages checking on her. Her building was not damaged, but she would look down on the hallowed grounds of Ground Zero from her office from that day forward.
It was not long before New York City’s nerves would be tested again and Paula’s safety would motivate me to action. Only two months after the devastating September 11 terror attacks, a plane unexpectedly crashed, shortly after takeoff, into the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Rockaway.
I was in a local gym on Woodhaven Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens, at the time of the crash and immediately felt my Secret Service pager vibrating and heard the roar of dozens of emergency vehicles screaming down the boulevard. Terrorism was immediately suspected and having no immediate reason to believe otherwise, I rushed to my car and headed to Paula’s office on the edge of Ground Zero, believing it might be targeted again. I met her in her office and pleaded with her to leave with me. She reluctantly agreed and, despite her supervisor thinking I was overreacting, we hurriedly headed to my car and I drove her home. It was later discovered that a tragic combination of wind conditions and pilot error had caused the plane to crash into the Rockaway community, killing all 260 passengers and five people on the ground.
of the United Nations General Assembly was always a logistical nightmare for the Secret Service. Planning and implementing a full-spectrum security plan for over a hundred heads of state and their spouses, along with the president of the United States, in the congested streets of New York City gives a security team limited options and is the perfect target for an assassin or terrorist. In the post-September 11 era, these complications were magnified even further. The 2002 UN General Assembly was going to be a test of the new operational techniques and contingency planning efforts the
Secret Service was implementing since the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks.
By 2002, I had risen through the ranks quickly and was one of the senior agents in the protective intelligence squad. My new assignment after the Melville field office was the New York field office, now located in downtown Brooklyn after the destruction of our office space in 7 World Trade Center. The new field office was under construction when we moved in, and the wounds from the terrorist attacks were still very fresh with the agents in the office, making the dreary “under construction” setting more emotionally draining than any normal remodeling effort. The purple walls and abandoned equipment from the prior tenant, who had left in a hurry, gave it a distinctly unserious, noninstitutional look that only further damaged the already badly damaged sense of office morale.
When the assignments for the UN General Assembly began to filter in and Scott, the backup (a term for the second in command of each squad within a field office), posted them, we rushed to see who would be covering each dignitary. The Secret Service was an agency full of alpha males and females, and everyone in the squad was hoping to be assigned to a high-threat country. There was no greater challenge for a field office agent than to successfully conduct advance work for a foreign head of state designated as a high-threat-level protectee.
I was eager to see where I would be assigned and was elated when I saw the name of a country on the board with my name next to it whose threat level was high. This particular head of state claimed power in a coup d’état and instability was the only stable characteristic of his country at the time. My assignment was to exhaustively research the threats to this country, its leader, and the UN in general and provide a threat assessment based on all of this information so the members of the advance team could provide for appropriate countermeasures. The lead advance agent, Dave, was known for his thorough work and willingness to put in the long hours, and I was comfortable that he would use the information I provided to design an effective security plan.
I conducted approximately a week of planning for the visit and held thorough but contentious meetings with the staff of the foreign country. The staff, as did many others, wanted more cars in the motorcade than we could properly secure. Motorcade length is a symbol of power in the business and sometimes juvenile politics of dignitary protection, and the
arduous negotiations to shrink the motorcade lasted for days. Despite such lengthy debates about minute details, the arrival of the protectee into the country was, thankfully, without incident.
After we were assured that the protectee was “in for the night” and would have no further movements from the hotel, I departed for my hotel room to try to get some well-earned sleep, but this was not to happen. At approximately two o’clock in the morning, my Blackberry rang and I was informed by the agent in charge of our detail, Roy, that sources were relaying newly acquired information to Secret Service headquarters about a plot to assassinate our protectee, and it was to be carried out in the next few days. Roy told me that the plan was to disguise an assassin as a member of the press traveling with the head of state and his staff and to kill him using a firearm.
Being awakened late at night with this type of information is every agent’s worst nightmare. The responsibility for the life of the assigned protectee is a burden that the advance team shares collectively, but the pressure to perform is felt by each member singularly. Secret Service management does not micromanage their agents and gives them enormous responsibility, but that responsibility comes at a price. Agents have to own any failure to complete the mission at hand and failure is to be avoided at nearly any cost. I spent the next hour on the phone with Roy, talking through some enhanced security measures we would implement in an effort to foil any potential assassination plot. We had already designed and implemented a thorough press screening process to ensure they were “clean” (free of weapons or explosives), but out of an abundance of caution we decided to make some strategic alterations. I suggested to Roy that we resweep the press at every stop. Standard practice was to sweep them once and assign an agent to watch them to ensure they stayed clean. Given the grave nature of this threat and the devastating geopolitical and personal consequences if it was successful, I felt this to be a necessary inconvenience for the press and the staff, who assuredly would not be happy about the time these measures would add to the daily schedule.
The next day began with a heightened level of tension among the members of the detail. We ensured that the morning sweep of the press entourage was thorough and, to our relief, uncovered no weapons. When we arrived at the first stop and ordered the press entourage to go through
another sweep, I could see the surprise in their eyes at this unusual request. Members of the press are an inherently curious group and they began to ask what was wrong. The questions multiplied at each successive stop when they were asked to repeat the security sweep process.
One of the great challenges of the Secret Service protection program is that we can never prove that we prevented an assassination. Assassins do not give you the courtesy of notifying you when you have defeated their plans. Throughout the day we noticed the press pool shrinking at each stop. We will never know for sure whether this was simply the result of a growing frustration with the suffocating security or a potential assassin being defeated by our security plan, but either way our mission was complete. We escorted the protectee back to his plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport and watched as he safely left the country, all the time keeping in mind that there are no rewards for an expected success, only punishment for failure.
WAS ALWAYS LOOKING
for activities to maintain a high degree of physical fitness and found the burgeoning mixed martial arts movement to be the perfect fit. It combined the strength and endurance of collegiate wrestling with the skill requirements of boxing and the strategic gamesmanship of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Conveniently, in 2002, the Secret Service training center in Maryland opened up a position for a control tactics instructor. The majority of Secret Service hand-to-hand combat training focused on boxing instruction, but there were a number of tactical problems with this approach. The most basic issue was that all
agents are armed with a handgun and an extendable baton to
getting into a stand-up hand-to-hand fight. Also, during training we often found that when a trainee lacked any boxing skills, usually he or she learned only one thing: how to take a good beating. Introducing mixed martial arts solved many of these problems. It was effective on the ground and it was surprisingly low impact.
Although I had only three years of experience as a special agent at the time the control tactics instructor position was announced, I decided that this would be a great opportunity to take my career on a new path. I applied for the vacant position and anxiously waited for a response. Marty, my former supervisor from the Melville field office, was helpful and made a number of phone calls to headquarters personnel on my behalf. Such calls are a sad but necessary part of the Secret Service culture. Merit comprises about 70 percent of the selection process for any position within the Secret Service, but the other 30 percent is having the right person make the right phone call at the right time. This is by no means a job characteristic unique to the Secret Service; within government employment there is a heavy premium placed on making the appropriate connections in order to advance your career. Thick bureaucracies within the federal government are infamous for this type of organizational advancement. Here’s the way it works: government employee A promotes his friend, the less senior government employee B, into a position knowing that when government employee A retires and moves into either a lobbying or private sector position where he can leverage his inside connections, he can then rely on government employee B to provide him access to government contacts and largesse.