Authors: Dan Bongino
The advance at the Imperial Hotel was exhausting as I acclimated to the time change and walked miles each day through its corridors and up and down its stairwells. Secretary Chertoff’s visit was thankfully uneventful, and with no break I boarded a plane and traveled to China. The dynamic between the Secret Service and the staff at the Shangri-La in Beijing was very different from the dynamic we shared with the Imperial in Tokyo. The Imperial staff allowed us open and unimpeded access to all areas within the hotel, and they found us amusing with the detailed questions we would pose to them. We would walk through the kitchens and the rear hallways and became a fixture within the hotel during our time there.
I found the security staff at the Shangri-La more restrictive and cautious with our access, which was in line with the country’s generally skeptical view of foreign security. They allowed me to walk through the hotel, but I was confronted at every corner by a different security staff representative and had to constantly repeat my intentions at each turn. It was frustrating and impressive at the same time. The intense security added hours to what
should have been a relatively routine advance at the Shangri-La, but it would work to my benefit during the visit and I was confident in their ability to control access to the hotel areas we were most concerned about. I logically assumed that if I couldn’t navigate a corridor without being confronted at every terrain feature, then neither could a hypothetical assassin.
The trip was successful, but more importantly for me it was a crash course in protection that I needed to prepare for my next assignment, the Presidential Protective Division.
In the late spring of 2006 I heard through office gossip that another round of transfers to the PPD was about to commence. Any talk about transfers to the PPD was always the source of temporary chaos. If any agents suspected or heard that they were being transferred to the vice president’s detail and had worked diligently to get to the PPD, the phone calls would start. They would call any management-level official they knew to ensure that this did not happen. I had not heard from anyone regarding my status and started to consider how to tell Paula if I was not selected for the PPD. Being with me every step of the way, she would be as devastated as I was if I wasn’t selected for the PPD, as she knew how important it was to me. We had been together since the attacks of 9/11 and she was more supportive of my career aspirations than I could have ever dreamed. My fears were allayed late one evening in May of 2006 while I was standing on the front lawn of Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff’s home in the dark. My flashlight battery was running low as I made my routine security check around the house, so I used my Secret Service–issued Blackberry for illumination. As I looked at the screen I saw a new message. It was my official transfer to the Presidential Protective Division.
VERY SECRET SERVICE AGENT’S FIRST DAY
at the White House as part of the PPD is a surreal experience. Walking through the claustrophobia-inducing hallways of the West Wing and bumping shoulders with the nation’s most powerful men and women is an experience most can only imagine from what they’ve seen on television. Yet I was immediately plunged into the operational security workings of the president’s detail with little time for reflection on my surroundings.
My first shift at the White House began in the early afternoon. I walked into our West Wing office and immediately ran into a friend of
mine from the New York office, who had just completed his first shift, and was shocked to find out that he was assigned to a post directly with the president. I clearly remember him saying to me with a slightly overwhelmed look, “Wow, it’s real now.”
I spent the majority of my first day in the White House mentally rehearsing the security plan that was still relatively new to me and trying to take in the fear and elation of being part of “the big show.” The White House is a complicated structure, with a very detailed and layered security plan, and ensuring that my reaction to an incident would become second nature was a responsibility I took very seriously. The responses to any series of incidents at the White House are not simple “if A happens, then do B” action steps. They require careful analysis and deliberative thought, features not inherent in any high-stress attack scenario.
In order to avoid any hesitation of action, the Secret Service agents of the PPD are constantly rehearsing the multilayered responses to any potential scenario requiring action. Because of this, the Secret Service was hesitant to send agents new to the PPD outside the White House grounds until they had accumulated some experience with the internal dynamics of the detail; therefore I knew I would have the opportunity to process the security protocol inside the White House before being asked to take on more responsibility. Presidential security is such a complicated endeavor, involving so many different variables, that I had to be cautious not to get too far ahead of myself but to focus on performing the task at hand each day to the best of my ability.
In addition to the endless security plans to memorize, agents new to the PPD also had to learn a series of unwritten rules. Mastering the unwritten rules was as complicated as mastering the written ones, and the penalties for violating them were severe. One of those inviolable rules was to never be caught on the White House grounds dressed in anything but business attire unless it was the dress code for the day (e.g., golf with the president). Punishment for breaking this rule was a string of bad assignments, so it was a mistake usually made only once. Another unwritten rule was to never engage the protectee in an unsolicited conversation. Any agent who could not fight an urge to start a conversation with the president would see his time on the detail cut short.
Arguably, the most important rule was to never, ever, be caught
complaining about the detail. Developing a reputation as a whiner was a death sentence for an agent’s career. Word spread quickly on the PPD and once it was out there, a bad reputation was hard to shake. The peer pressure enforcing these rules, both written and unwritten, was intense, and I learned to adjust my behavior accordingly.
After a two-month period working on President George W. Bush’s shift and experiencing the intense heat at his Waco ranch, the difficulties of changing from a suit to ranch attire in the bathroom of Air Force One, learning how to open the doors of the presidential limo (it is not easy), constantly battling for parking on the White House grounds, and the zero tolerance for whining and complaining, the indoctrination process was complete and I was promptly transferred to the security detail of Jenna Bush.
All new PPD agents had to complete an assignment on one of the Bush daughter details, after a two-month assignment to the presidential shift, as part of the PPD career track. These smaller details are less regimented, and developing personal relationships with the protectees, although frowned upon, is not uncommon. I found Jenna to be affable, kind, and extremely adventurous, and I heard from agents on the detail that she had an intense travel schedule planned over the course of the next year—a fact my wife found disturbing, as Paula had become accustomed to my consistent work hours and a lighter travel load through my time in the DPD and at the training center. The schedule centered around a book Jenna was writing regarding her experiences with an HIV-positive woman named Ana while working with UNICEF. We were scheduled to travel to South America for an extended stay right after a road trip across the United States she was planning shortly after my arrival.
Working as an agent on Jenna’s detail was interesting because the security footprint was effective but not as obvious as the president’s. This lack of visible security would result in the same puzzled reaction from people who recognized her. They would see her and then proceed to scan the area for the Secret Service. When they did not immediately see us, I could read their lips as they would say, “That’s not her.” While following her in the vehicles on her cross-country trip it turned into a game as the agent I was assigned to partner with, Matt, and I would watch the passing vehicles do this again and again.
I enjoyed the change of pace during my first few weeks with Jenna,
and not having to fight for parking on the White House ellipse and wear a business suit every day significantly reduced the stress factor. We were constantly moving, and each day was a new experience. Finding hotels to sleep in during the road trip became a daily adventure as we would drive through small towns in America most people will never visit and have likely never heard of. The two-week trip ended for us in Bandon, Oregon, a town that seemed mildly surprised at our arrival into their quiet piece of America. With a population of just over three thousand, the arrival of the frst daughter and a cadre of Secret Service agents elicited some excitement and confusion, as some were unsure if it really was Jenna Bush. When we walked into a local restaurant, it was like a scene out of a movie where the jukebox goes silent and everyone turns their attention to the front door. The locals were either delighted or astonished that we were there—either way, they treated us well and the buzz we had caused in the town was palpable as everyone we passed seemed to know who we were and gave us a not-so-subtle wink or nod. This adventurous cross-country trip was but a small taste of what was to come on our upcoming South American journey.
The first stop on Jenna’s tour of South America was Panama. The agents and I planned to stay for an extended period in Panama City, and given the length of the trip we had to prepare accordingly. Items we take for granted in our daily lives become an issue when living overseas in a hotel not designed for long-term residents. Finding food, clean water, a gym, and proper medical assistance (an issue which would become critical for me shortly after arriving) were constant challenges.
Fortunately, our Panamanian security counterparts made these tasks slightly less daunting. Assigned to us twenty-four hours a day, there was very little they could not do. They seemed to be connected to a network of insiders who could acquire anything we needed. Throughout my career, I found this trait to be quite common overseas. We in the United States have a system of government where we largely do not live in fear of law enforcement. This is not the case in many other countries. I learned that a history of government oppression or internal strife left a scar of fear of law enforcement on many of the citizens of these countries. As one Panamanian told me, “Those who have the guns, have the power.” This power gives law-enforcement personnel access to an influential network of people not necessarily commensurate with their position.
After a few days acclimating to the water and environment as I awaited Jenna’s arrival with the team, I developed the standard gastrointestinal illness, which became a part of nearly every foreign trip I went on. But it was not long after her arrival that other problems began. The agents on Jenna’s detail had, over time, become accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of working on a smaller, less regimented detail with an adventurous protectee. We knew her habits and how to communicate with her, yet PPD management decided to send an Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAIC) down to Panama with us to manage the operation, despite the fact that he had limited experience working with Jenna. It was not long before conflicts regarding implementation of our protection plan developed.
We had established some unique yet effective nontraditional approaches to keeping Jenna safe, and the agents on the detail and I grew frustrated with the incessant second-guessing from the ASAIC given our record of success to that point. One agent in particular, who had an outstanding reputation for honesty, was fed up and challenged the ASAIC after a week of internal bickering. The ASAIC appeared stunned when the subordinate agent confronted him forcefully. We won that exchange and the ASAIC left the country shortly thereafter, to the relief of the detail and Jenna.
The dangers of being a Secret Service agent on a foreign protection assignment are not all of the tactical variety. Before leaving for Panama, I, along with the rest of Jenna’s detail, was warned about the variety of potential illnesses we could acquire in South America if we were not diligent. Malaria was still a problem and the White House Medical Unit strongly advised us to wear appropriate clothing and to liberally apply mosquito repellant. Having traveled for years with the Secret Service and never dealing with any condition worse than common gastrointestinal illnesses, I ignorantly disregarded the advice. It was a decision I would come to regret.
I was assigned to work the afternoon shift on February 4, 2007, Super Bowl Sunday, with Andrew, the agent who had greeted me at the White House during my initial shift there. Jenna was not scheduled to leave her small apartment, so we expected a slow night. We occupied the apartment directly next door and we had a small television with a picture so terrible you could barely recognize a face on the screen. Between shifts watching the apartment, we could tune in to the game and watch the Colts and
Bears fight it out for Super Bowl victory.
During the night I began to feel ill, but unlike a standard cold or flu that typically comes on slowly, I was deteriorating rapidly and within thirty minutes I felt as if I was going to lose consciousness. Mike, the acting supervisor on the trip and a very close friend from my days in the New York and Melville offices, was concerned and quickly had another agent rush to the apartment to relieve me so I could head back to the hotel. What followed was the most painful experience I ever lived through.
I had contracted dengue fever from a mosquito bite. The symptoms I experienced made it clear to me why the illness is also known as “break-bone fever.” I was in and out of consciousness and alone in the hotel for the duration of the night, feeling as if my entire body was being crushed while fluctuating between extreme fever and bone-chilling shivers. I was sweating profusely and had soaked the mattress I was sleeping on, and as a result I was severely dehydrated.