Authors: Dan Bongino
The personal side to my potential transfer was going to be more challenging. Paula and I were still dating at that time, and despite some initial setbacks, our relationship was getting stronger. Paula was very happy living in New York and feared the ramifications for our relationship if I moved away without her. She always told me, “
amor de lejos es amor de pendejos,
” which is an old, slightly off-color Spanish expression meaning “love from afar is love for fools.” This neatly summed up her attitude about long-distance relationships.
I decided to wait until I was notified of a decision before I said anything to her about the job. In the late fall of 2002, I received a call from
Marty congratulating me on my transfer to the James J. Rowley Secret Service Training Center, located in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was ecstatic but at the same time anxious about how Paula would respond, because I would not leave without her. I immediately called her and after some tiptoeing around the issue I said, “I’ve been sent to DC.”
Gauging by the delay in her response, I assumed she was upset. I was surprised and thrilled to hear some excitement in her voice and that she was ready for a bold change as well. Though we were dating for only a year, she said she would ask her supervisor at the SIA to see if a transfer to their Washington, DC, office would be possible. She also agreed to accompany me on my house-hunting trip to Maryland. I knew if she left me that the devastation would be permanent and was relieved at her willingness to “take a look” at Maryland.
After doing an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis of living in Maryland versus living in Virginia or Washington, I decided on Maryland. The state seemed ideal to me. Robert Ehrlich had just been elected its first Republican governor in over thirty years and, although the legislature was largely dominated by Democrats, the state itself offered a little bit of everything: good schools, a major city in Baltimore, proximity to my workplace, Catoctin Mountain Park, Deep Creek Lake, the Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis, and a whole lot more I would come to discover while living there.
Paula and I left for our house-hunting trip in November of 2002 excited at the possibilities. Owning a home was something I had never considered during my childhood and now I was taking a trip to buy one; it was a new adventure for both of us. After a long week of looking at various houses in a number of different neighborhoods, we settled on a home in Severna Park. With its white exterior, blue shutters, and spacious front lawn, it was the piece of middle-class heaven both Paula and I had been searching for our entire lives.
I moved to Maryland, initially, by myself while Paula stayed back in New York for an additional month finishing her work for the New York office of SIA. I reported to work anxious to get started in the control tactics section, but was dismayed to be temporarily assigned to the investigative tactics section. The section was short personnel and I was to fill in as an instructor until they could find a permanent replacement.
Having just completed a nearly two-year investigation of a major credit
card fraud ring with a tie to international terrorism, I was well versed in the nuances of major federal investigations. After teaching classes for a week, with no prior experience at lecturing, the supervisor of the section, Bob, was impressed with my grasp of the subject matter and I was transferred to the section full time. I took on the new assignment with vigor. I enjoyed working for Bob—he had been working for the Secret Service for nearly two decades within our investigative branches and on the Vice Presidential Protective Division (VPD). Bob was always smiling, a contrast from Marty who seemed to always be internally deliberating about something. Bob had come from the VPD and in the culture of the Secret Service you are either a Presidential Protective Division (PPD) agent or you were VPD, and this label was permanent. It did not matter if you worked VPD as a rank-and-file agent and then received a promotion and moved to the PPD as a supervisor—you would always be remembered as a “VP guy.”
The training center’s investigative tactics training program needed a complete overhaul. With the assignment of another new agent to the section, a tough-as-nails Marine veteran named Tim, we were ready to discard the old program and start fresh. Tim and I had very different backgrounds but became quick friends. He was a country kid and I was a New Yorker, so he referred to me as “Big City.” I laughed at the name and learned to live with it. Having grown up largely within the borders of New York City, I was amused by Tim’s stories of shooting squirrels in his backyard with a .22 rifle as a young child. This type of activity would have led to your arrest in New York City and was unheard of. Ironically, although we grew up in polar opposite environments, we both had relatively similar worldviews and similar instruction styles. We both valued leadership and personal responsibility among the students and would reward those who may not have been the most skilled but displayed the greatest character.
Tim and I agreed that if we were going to rewrite this training program, we were going to make it state of the art. We sought out the best personnel for each specific subject area and attended training programs to learn the most updated investigative tactics in the field. Tim attended an interview and interrogation school in Florida, while I attended a surveillance school run by a prominent intelligence agency. We both solicited help from the Drug Enforcement Administration in rewriting the program’s undercover tactics section. The redesign was a yearlong
project and we both felt much pride in the end result, which took the best pieces of information from talented subject matter experts and created a high-quality training program.
Redesigning the curriculum was not our only responsibility, as it was expected that after an initiation period each instructor would become a class coordinator and manage a recruit class. The responsibility of managing your own class of recruits was a cherished one in the training center. Most federal agencies relegated this responsibility exclusively to supervisory staff, but the Secret Service allowed nonsupervisory personnel to perform the task with the idea that it taught and reinforced leadership skills for the students as well as the trainers.
The pressure on instructors was great and there were no excuses if your class failed to perform to the required standards. Trainees would not hesitate to destroy your credibility in their evaluations if you were not attentive and effective, and this was a significant factor in motivating the instructor staff to provide an ongoing, quality product. This experience was to teach me more about leadership than my entire body of experience to that point. I quickly learned that ranks and titles do not make men or women effective leaders. My first few months with the class, many of whom who were significantly older than I was, were tumultuous. I moved between a desire to be everyone’s friend, to anger and frustration when some would take advantage of my friendly demeanor. Learning the delicate balance between goodwill and perceived weakness is a lesson that cannot be learned in a textbook.
Leadership in the real world is not pretty or glamorous, but it is deeply rewarding. I learned toward the conclusion of the trainee’s program that leadership is not easily compartmentalized into flashy sound bites or a slogan on a poster. It requires the ability to allow people to cry when they need it, and to tell them to stop crying when they don’t. Being an effective leader means having the ability to tell those you like that they are wrong and those you don’t that they are right, and to show your human failings when there is a lesson to be transmitted. The class graduated from the Secret Service training center with their heads held high, and I graduated from the management school of life with a fresh new outlook on how to lead and, more importantly, how not to.
FTER THREE YEARS
instructing and managing new recruits at the training center, it was comforting to know that my turn to join the elite Presidential Protective Division was approaching. It is a little-known fact that very few members of the Secret Service reach the ranks of the president’s protection detail. It is the ultimate career achievement for a Secret Service agent to protect the president and is held in even higher esteem than a promotion. I worked hard to reach the point where I was in a position to be considered and had one more step in front of me before I could join the elite PPD. Each
agent was assigned to the Dignitary Protective Division (DPD) first for a “trial run” before being selected for either the president’s or vice president’s protection details.
This was a new requirement and though it was the last step until I could reach my ultimate goal, it was going to add months and potentially years of additional protection time to my career, a prospect I was not looking forward to. An agent’s time on a protection detail, regardless of who the protectee is, is the most stressful portion of his service. It involves travel to extremely dangerous parts of the world with limited protection for yourself, extremely early wake-up times, long periods without eating or drinking or access to bathrooms, and a life that revolves around the schedule of the protectee and not your own. In addition, the sacrifices your family is either willingly or unwillingly co-opted into are enormous. No family event is sacred within the Secret Service, and “luxuries” like attending your children’s birthday parties or watching the joy in their eyes as they open gifts on Christmas mornings always take a backseat to your duties.
There are various positions within the DPD and I was hastily assigned to the operations section. I was selected for this position because of my experience in the operations section of the training center, and it was common knowledge in the Secret Service that once you were labeled as a quality “ops guy,” it stuck with you. This was going to be different for me, though. The operations section in the training center required me to handle scheduling issues and trainee affairs, not protection logistics. I had never been assigned to a full-time protective detail before and had little knowledge or on-the-job training with regard to managing its operations. I began to feverishly research the job requirements and make calls to friends for advice. Protection details are unique operational outfits that have their own jargon, rules (both stated and tacit), and codes of conduct, and agents can quickly determine who is fit to be there and who is not. I was absolutely determined to fit in and was not going to be a cautionary tale told to other agents transferred to the section.
In the winter of 2005 I reported to the DPD operations section in the middle of a midterm election and some staff shake-ups in the Bush administration. These staff changes usually had a profound impact on the agents of the DPD. The agent’s lives centered around learning to predict and adapt to the behavior of a protectee, a skill that can take years, and
their replacement started the entire cycle over. Every time my phone rang in the DPD, it was an issue that the caller wanted handled “immediately” and I learned to produce results quickly. I found myself glued to a phone and a desk for hours at a time, calling our various field offices all over the country and giving them the bad news that one of our protectees was headed for their districts.
Many of the field offices I dealt with on a daily basis were located in very busy areas of the country for both protection and criminal investigations, and every visit by a protectee under the management of the DPD was an additional task for them. Arrogance was a common complaint leveled against operations agents in the Secret Service, mostly due to the fact that we were handing out the orders even though we had no formal supervisory status. Having never worked on a protective detail and being responsible for guiding some of our experienced supervisors in the field through the process of protection operations was uncomfortable at times. I felt that I lacked credibility with them, but I did my best to help without coming across as arrogant, a skill some others could not pull off.
We always had the cable news channels on the office television in the DPD operations section to ensure we never missed a breaking news event. I would listen to the news playing all day and my interest in political races grew as a result. One race I found particularly interesting was the US Senate race in Maryland between former lieutenant governor Michael Steele and Representative Ben Cardin (my future political opponent). It was a political battle in a blue state in an election year that was shaping up to be a historic one for the Democratic Party. I was impressed by Steele’s ability to remain competitive given all the factors working against him and I followed the race closely, hoping for a victory for Maryland Republicans that would never come.
The monotony of spending hours on the phone and computer accompanied by the lack of time in the field performing protection-related functions was beginning to drain my motivation. I had always prided myself on operational effectiveness, and manning a desk was atrophying not only my skills but my mind. I asked DPD management if I could be assigned temporarily to a protective detail to sharpen my security skills and they obliged by assigning me to secure two foreign hotels for Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. The first was the
Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan, and the second was the Shangri-La in Beijing, China.
Securing hotels according to Secret Service standards is one of the most difficult tasks we perform and I was excited, yet anxious, about the opportunity. Doing two consecutive security advances on the opposite side of the globe as a reintroduction to operational advance work was a formidable task. I did as much research on the two hotels as I could from my desk in the DPD office and prepared for the long trip.
Upon arriving in Japan and beginning the assignment, I discovered why hotels had historically presented us with such difficulty. (Consider, for example, the Ronald Reagan shooting at the Washington, DC, Hilton, and the attempt on President Gerald Ford outside of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.) Hotels are cavernous structures designed to keep employees and equipment hidden from sight. The cleaning and maintenance staff navigate a circuitous route of hidden hallways allowing them to move freely around the hotel out of sight of the guests. This is an assassin’s dream and a Secret Service agent’s worst nightmare. We have the advantage in any location where we have familiarity with the terrain, such as the White House, but in a hotel agents have a limited period of time to become as familiar with the landscape as they are with the White House.