Everything you need to know about CAT, the Secret Service’s baddest bad boys

Three members of the U.S. Secret Service’s counter assault team were sent home from President Obama’s trip to Europe this week after one was allegedly found passed out in the hallway of a Netherlands hotel where the president would be staying the following night.

The incident has embarrassed the agency and is a stain on the reputation of one of the Secret Service’s most elite and demanding units, known internally as “CAT," which accepts only a sliver of those who audition for a position. Here’s what you need to know about the baddest of the service’s bad boys:

Members of the U.S. Secret Service's Counter Assault Team are seen before boarding helicopters at a landing zone in Amsterdam, on March 24, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
Members of the U.S. Secret Service's Counter Assault Team are seen before boarding helicopters at a landing zone in Amsterdam, on March 24, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Q. The president has a huge protective entourage. What role does CAT play?

A. These are the guys with the heavy artillery – big rifles slung over their shoulders or carried in black canvas bags. It’s impossible to miss them in their heavy black combat vests and other intimidating-looking gear. They patrol the White House lawn and ride in a black van in the motorcade, a handful of vehicles behind “the Beast,” which is the nickname for the presidential limo. The role of the CAT team is clear: If the White House or the motorcade comes under an attack, CAT agents are the ones who will “lay down an unbelievable amount of suppressive fire,” said one former agent who did not serve in the CAT unit.

Q. How does that differ from other units protecting the president?

A. As CAT is providing cover, it is up to the protective detail (the guys in suits and sunglasses) to hustle POTUS (an acronym for “President of the United States”) to safety; it's up to the “counter-sniper” unit to scan the perimeter for hidden enemy sharp-shooters. While CAT agents are classified as “special forces,” they are not swooping in to snatch the president from danger; rather, they are charged with engaging the enemy fire and providing time for POTUS to get away in "the Beast," which has 8-inch thick armored doors and weighs an estimated 15,000 pounds. “The presidential protection division’s job is not to fight — this is not the movies,” explained Dan Bongino, a former agent who served as detail to President Obama and whose brother served in the CAT division. “Their job is to get the president out of trouble, end of story. You don’t care who has the bigger guns.”

Q. But CAT has big guns, right?

A. Right. According to Ronald Kessler, author of the 2010 book "In the President's Secret Service," the counter assault team carries SR-16 carbines, a powerful rifle similar to the popular M-4.

COOL HELICOPTER INTERLUDE:

Q. Sounds demanding. It is difficult to become a CAT agent?

A. Extremely difficult. The Secret Service prides itself on its exclusivity, and the CAT unit is one of the most exclusive of all because of the physical and mental demands. No one, not even the world’s best athlete, can be selected directly for CAT school. Applicants must have years of experience in the agency, starting, as all new hires do, in a field office doing investigations and working their way up. Then, the application process is grueling, with a week of pre-school and then six weeks of training for those who are selected, Bongino said. Many drop out. Among the requirements, CAT applicants must be able to run fast – a mile and a half in about 9 minutes – and be strong – three pullups in a 45-pound weight vest, for example. But, though many are built like NFL linebackers or, at least, strong safeties, these aren't muscle-heads: CAT agents must be mentally sharp, and skillful with heavy weapons. They must endure stress tests designed to rattle their aim. Bongino said, for instance, that a typical test could require an agent to sprint a quarter-mile, then pick up a gun and hit a target; or swing a 50-pound kettlebell dozens of times, then put it down and fire.

Q. You call them "bad boys" in the headline. What about the girls?

A. Bongino said no women serve in CAT, but former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham, who served from 2003-2006 under George W. Bush, said some did make the cut. In any case, it is an overwhelmingly male division inside an agency with a long-standing reputation as something of "a boy's club." Julia Pierson, who President Obama named last year as the agency's first female director, did not serve on CAT. A Secret Service spokesman did not respond to questions for this story.

Q. C’mon, the world is full of great athletes. It can’t be that difficult, can it?

A. “I didn’t make it,” Basham conceded in an interview. “I didn’t have the skills. I’d say 10 percent make it. It’s a very prestigious position, highly sought after among certain people.”

Q. Okay, so have they ever deployed and laid down that overwhelming firepower?

A. No. Fortunately, no president has come under an assault by multiple gunmen — Grassy Knoll conspiracies aside. Tim McCarthy, the agent shot by John Hinckley Jr., during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton in 1981, was a member of the protective detail. Basham said he recalled only one incident in which the CAT unit considered deploying; though he could not recall the specifics. He said it might have been a suspected gas attack, and the agency conducted an internal after action review about the potential deployment. Still, Basham said, the CAT team must stay in prime condition: “They do all types of training, and they’re out there practicing and running through every possible scenario you can think of. Back in my day, every fourth week they did nothing but training.”

Q. Stressful.

A. Bongino: “If the PPD gets into trouble, the CAT guys rescue us. But nobody ever rescues CAT.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
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