James Bamford Reviews Ronald Kessler's 'In the President's Secret Service'

By James Bamford
Sunday, August 23, 2009


Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect

By Ronald Kessler

Crown. 273 pp. $26

A few blocks from the White House, on the busy corner of H and 9th streets, stands a bland, unnamed, nine-story office building. On a wall in the lobby, large silver letters spell out the words "Worthy of Trust and Confidence." That is the motto of the Secret Service, and the anonymous tan-brick building is the agency's headquarters. "The phrase," said former director Lewis C. Merletti, "is the absolute heart and soul of the United States Secret Service. . . . And it must never be compromised." Lest they forget, all agents have the motto emblazoned on their IDs.

But in light of an odd decision by the current director, Mark Sullivan, the motto should be changed to "Have You Heard This One?" During the Bush administration, hoping for some good, ego-enhancing publicity, Sullivan broke with his agency's long-standing policy of absolute silence and allowed Ronald Kessler to get an earful. The chief Washington correspondent for Newsmax.com, which bills itself as "the #1 conservative news agency online," Kessler had written very positive books about CIA Director George Tenet, first lady Laura Bush and President George W. Bush, and Sullivan was probably hoping for the same treatment.

Hearing that Sullivan had given Kessler his blessing, scores of current and former agents -- Kessler claims more than 100 -- agreed to talk to him. But rather than use that wealth of information to write a serious book examining the inner workings of the long-veiled agency or the new challenges of protecting the first black president, the author simply milked the agents for the juiciest gossip he could get and mixed it with a rambling list of their complaints.

Trashing their motto, these agents seem to relish throwing dirt on their former protectees, especially Democrats. But it is all boring and familiar. Agents Chuck Taylor and Larry Newman, like tattling schoolboys, breathlessly rant about JFK's escapades more than 40 years ago, in particular one with secretaries nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle wearing T-shirts in the White House pool. "You could see their nipples," snickers Taylor.

Other agents tell of Lyndon Johnson's "stable" of women and how he liked to get drunk at his ranch and then "whiz out on the front lawn." Even Vice President Spiro Agnew, according to another agent, was escorted to various hotels for affairs. "We felt like pimps," he said. But the best he could offer for proof was that "he looked embarrassed."

Richard Nixon was "the strangest modern president," say Kessler's agents, and his successor, Jerry Ford, was nice but "cheap." Former agent Robert B. Sulliman Jr. was angry because Jimmy Carter would get to the office about 6 a.m. and "do a little work for half an hour, then close the curtains and take a nap" without informing the press of his breaks.

The busy, self-important agents also disliked tardiness, which is one reason they couldn't stand Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Former agent Dave Saleeba waited impatiently for Vice President Gore one day, only to discover him "eating a muffin at the pool." The book's inane and endless anecdotes never rise much higher.

A conservative lot, the agents found President Ronald Reagan "a down-to-earth individual;" his successor, George H.W. Bush, "a great man, just an all around nice person"; and George W. Bush "down to earth, caring." Agents, Kessler says, loved to "chop wood" with the younger Bush and appreciated "the fact that Bush is punctual." Otherwise, apparently, they might have been forced to fire him. Kessler never asks the agents anything substantive, such as if they had any insights into how the Bush White House involved the country in the Iraq war.

Throughout the book, many of the current and former agents come across as little more than disgruntled rent-a-guards, complaining about their shifts, their assignments and their pay while traveling on Air Force One and walking the halls of the West Wing. They also have larger issues. They complain that on occasion, such as during campaigns, staff members order metal detectors shut down to accommodate large crowds -- tens of thousands of people sometimes -- surging into stadiums and other large venues to hear candidates. They fail to see how close we have already come to a fortress society and that candidates occasionally choose to assume the risk as the price of democracy. The agents complain that they, too, are put at risk. But for all their talk of danger, there are few jobs in law enforcement as safe as that of a Secret Service agent. None have been killed during an assassination attempt in more than half a century, and few have been wounded. It is far more hazardous to put on a Bureau of Indian Affairs or Park Police badge.

What is truly dangerous is the kind of National Enquirer-style gossip in Kessler's book. In the future, without "trust and confidence" in their agents, presidents will want to keep them at a distance, out of spying range -- and out of safety range, when split seconds may count. And with President Obama, such concerns may be especially acute. "Once Obama became president," Kessler says, "the Secret Service experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of threats against the president, in comparison with President Bush." Two weeks ago, outside an Obama town hall meeting in Maryland, a man held a sign reading "Death to Obama" and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids." And last week, at an Obama event in Phoenix, a dozen gun-toting protesters -- including one with an AR-15 assault rifle on his shoulder and a handgun in his holster -- lingered nearby.

James Bamford writes regularly on intelligence. His most recent book is "The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA, From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America."

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