Monday, December 7, 2009

33. In the President's Secret Service by Ronald Kessler

Colin loves watching The Daily Show. I like it too, but it's not must-see TV for me. I'm usually around while he's watching it, and pay attention when something is especially funny or interesting. A few months ago on the show, Jon Stewart interviewed Ronald Kessler about this book. It sounded really interesting, so I made a note of the title and placed a request at the library. It came in last week, and I was excited to start reading (in part because it was a welcome change of subject from honor killings). I was expecting a serious and objective history of the Secret Service.

That wasn't what I got. As it turns out, an objective history was not Kessler's goal in writing this book. He does provide information on how the Secret Service was founded and how it became the agency it is today, including an official timeline of events. He also spends time explaining procedures and training. However, the bulk of the book is comprised of personal anecdotes about the presidents who have been protected by the Secret Service and criticism of its current management.

The personal anecdotes read a bit like good gossip, which I am not opposed to. Although I really wasn't expecting to read dish about our nation's leaders, I'm definitely not above enjoying it. In part because I agree with the idea that how one treats people behind closed doors is indicative of their overall character. Politicians work very hard to maintain a public persona that will instill confidence and get them votes, and it's always interesting to learn how that persona compares the person behind it. For example, Jimmy Carter made a show of arriving to work at the Oval Office by 6:00 a.m. and carrying his own baggage onto Air Force One, so that Americans would respect his hard work and common man attitude. In reality -- according the agents interviewed for the book -- Carter would nap for a couple of hours after arriving at the Oval Office and the bags he carried onto the plane were empty, his agents being left to carry his actual bags. I also enjoyed learning Secret Service code names, such as Renegade (Barack Obama) and Renaissance (Michelle Obama).

In shining a light on the problems within the agency, Kessler states that he hopes to be a catalyst for change and reform. It's obvious throughout that he has utmost respect for individual agents and the work that they do. However, according to Kessler, in the last decade managerial problems have compromised our presidents' safety. The Secret Service became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which created more competition for funding. While increased competition for funding is a serious concern, the real problem is that Secret Service management is not aggressively pursuing the funding necessary to properly provide protection. Management expects agents to step up and compensate for lack of funding with unimaginable hours and an ever-increasing workload. The attitude is that agents should be able to handle whatever is thrown at them, to the point that retaining agents is difficult -- especially since the private security sector is booming, offering more money for fewer hours. And a higher turnover rate should mean additional money and time spent on training new agents, but often training falls by the wayside due to the workload.

Kessler also clearly has little respect for protectees who attempt to limit their Secret Service protection. He shares stories about the Bush twins attempting to lose their agents, and states that they would probably regret doing so should they be kidnapped by terrorists and end up on Al-Jazeera. He also provides numerous stories of campaigns and administrations objecting to metal detectors at public events, especially in recent years. The instances when Secret Service acquiesced to such demands seem to baffle Kessler, who strongly feels that this is a dangerous compromise to the protectee's safety. He blames the current agency management for allowing such security breaches and attempts to make a case for the dismissal of the current agency director in favor of an outside hire, reasoning that an objective outsider could begin the necessary reforms.

As I said, In the President's Secret Service was not what I expected. I enjoyed reading it, but I think the information and stories within are best taken with a grain of salt. Not only does Kessler have a clear agenda and attempt to persuade his readers, but many of his sources elected to remain anonymous. While this doesn't mean that their stories aren't true, I think it's worth remembering while reading and coming to your own conclusions.

I want to include a link to an interesting Q&A with Kessler about the recent breach of security at the White House State Dinner (you know, the social climbing party crashers?). Also you can go here to watch the interview from The Daily Show.

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