Inside the Secret Service

Georgene Rice of KPDQ-FM Radio Interviews Ronald Tessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect”

Rice: For the average rank and file American, the Secret Service is somewhat mysterious about the Secret Service…How did you gain this kind of unprecedented access?

Tessler: An FBI agent introduced me to a Secret Service way back and more recently several current agents came to me and told me about the corner cutting that’s been going on in the Secret Service. And the corner cutting includes not doing sufficient screening at some events, letting passengers into an airplane without metal detectors. This has been going on ever since Homeland Security was created in 2003. It was as you say, controversial in the Service because it turned out to be an expose as well as what the agency the scenes.

Rice: What are members of the Secret Service permitted to talk about?
What can they say while they are serving in the agency?

Tessler: They’re not supposed to say anything while they are with the Service and after they leave. They are no actual contract and they can’t be fired unless they are currently with the service. There’s an understanding, a sort of culture, if you break that, you can suffer consequences…Secret Service people who are in positions to hire you later, may not want to hire you…And actually about half of the quotes are on the record….they trusted me to tell the right story…”

Rice: With the Secret Service, what are they officially charged with doing? What are there responsibilities beyond protecting them from assassins?

Tessler: The are charged with going after counterfeiters, people with financial crimes, ATM fraud, they protect about 46 people now, in the White House and Cabinet positions… They protect visiting heads of state, National Nominating Convention, The Inaguration, the G20 Summit…We’re seeing more corner cutting as the responsibilities of the Secret Service are increasing without an increase in funding or manpower…and what results is a lowering of standards.

Rice: You mentioned that the Secret Service is now under Homeland Security. You write that threats against President Obama rose by as much as 400% compared to when George W. Bush was in office. Once again, they are called on to do more with less resources when threats are the highest.

Tessler: Exactly, these threats have prompted a Secret Presidential Task Force within the FBI, which consists of Secret Service, FBI and CIA. A lot of the increases are because of racists and these are real racists who don’t like a black President. They may not be serious but each one has to be investigated.

Rice: The Secret Service, you write, is also responsible for protecting Presidential candidates and you write that John McCain and Barack Obama had very different relationships with the Secret Service.

Tessler: McCain was very tempermental and would blow up at Secret Service agents for no good reason and that was generally his personality behind the scenes. Whereas Barack Obama was and is respectful and considerate to agents. Both he and Michelle have invited agents to dinner several times during the campaign. He does continue to smoke on a regular basis, despite his claims to give it up.

Rice: Speaking of candidates, you write of Gary Hart, who lost his bid to the White House when the affair with Donna Rice was made public but that really wasn’t an isolated incident and was aparently quite active during the campaign.

Tessler: The Secret Service would go with him to Beverly Hills where his friend, Warren Beaty would arange to have starlets show up at Beaty’s home…and they would all jump in the hot tub, the girls would strip and they would stay over night and this was just par for the course for him. Ronald Reagan found out that the news of Donna Rice would break as he was getting into an elevator at the White House residence and he said, “Boys will be Boys” then he went up in the elevator with his Secret Service agent and said, “But boys will not be President”.

Rice: You write that Lyndon Johnson was not respectful to his Press Corp or to his Secret Service.

Tessler: Johnson was just totally out of control. One guy said that if this guy was not president, he would be in a mental hospital. He would urinate in front of female reporters at his ranch, he would sit on the toliet and defecate in front of his aids at the White House, he would have sex with his secretaries, with wives of friends, one time, Lady Bird caught him and he blew up at the Service for not notifying him…one time Johnson was running late for a meeting with JFK and he told the Secret Service to drive up on the sidewalk, where it was filled with people. The agent refused and Johnson rolled up a newspaper and hit him over the head and said, “You’re fired”. This is par for the course for Johnson.

Rice: You write about a little know incident where a President was protected and the Secret Service went out after would be assassins and there was a shot out, which history doesn’t really record.

Tessler: Yes, very few people are aware of this but when Truman was staying across the street from the White House, while it was being renovated. And two Puerto Rican nationalist basically tried to shot up the place and assassinate him…It was exactly what the Secret Service was trained to do…Truman was very serious about security, wheras JFK wasn’t as much. JFK didn’t want Secret Service agents on the back of his limo in Dallas, but had they been there, they would have been able to jump on him after the first bullet had been fired and they would have shielded him from the fatal bullet. Lincoln also did not want any security even though the Civil War was going on. Finally, before his assassination, he agreed to one police officer, but this one police officer decided to have a drink at the local tavern the night he was shot.

Rice: Some people resist having security and don’t take advantage of the extra security they offer. Do agents resent this imposition?

Tessler: Sure, Jenna Bush didn’t understand security, she would even run red lights to try to evade agents…one time she was in a bar with Henry Hagar, who is now her husband, in Georgetown and he almost got into a fight with some patrons and the agents had to intervene.
Another time he got so drunk at a Halloween party that they had to take him to the hospital, so definitely additional duties besides taking bullets for a president.

Rice: Who decides where the line is drawn when agents are called upon?

Tessler: They are trained to know that their duties are to protect and not to act as servants…they are not to carry luggage or carry grocery bags. They may from time to time offer to help, for example, Lynn Cheney.

Rice: It is a fascinating book that give light to those with significant authority and those who are called upon to protect them and some of the indignities they suffer in that process.

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