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The dangerous secrets inside the Secret Service, and how the agency has been shortchanged


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Amna Nawaz: The motto of the United States Secret Service is worthy of trust and confidence, and its reputation for being an elite force is the stuff of action movies.

But a new book, "Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service," from The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig, paints an alarmingly different picture of the security force in charge of protecting the president. It's an agency, she says, that is -- quote -- "in a state of unprecedented peril, whose decline has been decades in the making, with a frat boy culture."

And their mission, as one agent told her, is fulfilled not on skill nor training, but on -- quote -- "dumb luck."

Carol Leonnig joins me now. Carol, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

It's a striking assessment from so many people you talked to about the agency that's supposed to be protecting the president. How did it get this way?

Carol Leonnig: You know, there are two major things that sort of brought the downfall of the Secret Service, the state that it's in now, where agents are whispering to me that they're worried about a president being killed on their watch.

The first is that the Secret Service keeps a lot of secrets. And some of those secrets are important to keep, like how we keep the president from inhaling anthrax, but the secret part of the Secret Service has been abused by some small subset of Secret Service agents, and especially the leadership, to cover up vulnerabilities, to cover up mistakes, and to cover up sort of gross misconduct that none of us in America would tolerate in any law enforcement team, much less the most elite one that protects our democracy.

The second thing that's happened is that the service has been shortchanged, horribly shortchanged since 9/11. Our country spent billions of dollars, tens of billions of dollars, protecting us from terror in the skies, so that we fly safely everywhere we want, and protecting us from terror at our borders and our ports.

One tiny, tiny little agency that became sort of the redheaded stepchild in the huge Department of Homeland Security was the Secret Service. And now we're at the stage where alarms and sensors on the fence line at the White House that should be the most secure 18-acre compound in the world are on the fritz and allowing people to jump in and spend time uninterrupted on that campus.

Amna Nawaz: Well, you share some stunning stories and examples over decades in your book.

In your earliest chapters, though, you do examine what I think it's fair to call the agency's largest failure, which is the assassination of President Kennedy. It's a story, of course, that's been told so many times. You tell it from the agents' perspective, though.

What did you learn about how they look back at that moment in history?

Carol Leonnig: I'm so glad you ask, because this is such a seminal moment.

For our country, it was a tragedy. It was just a horrific event to have a president gunned down in an American city. The Secret Service, for them, this was a gut punch like no other, worse than it was for the country, a hair shirt they wore for years.

It caused suicides in the Secret Service, alcoholism. It also caused something wonderful, which was the director and the Secret Service agents that continued to serve were determined, never again. And they rebuilt this agency. And they gave it a kind of rigger that was something to behold. And their work was vindicated over the next decades to come.

Amna Nawaz: There is another stunning chapter to the Secret Service, more recently under the Trump administration.

And I want to ask you about politics and the Secret Service, because there are some examples you share in there of how the political views of the agents themselves did show up from time to time. It's an apolitical agency, but what did you find about how they managed the political views of the same people who are meant to keep the president alive?

Carol Leonnig: You know, it's almost impossible for the individual protection detail members who protect a president not to get close to that president and his family. It's very, very difficult.

Close in the sense of you're standing beside someone in their most private moments, and they're the most powerful person in the country, in the world. But, as an agent, you have to be apolitical, because security is your job, not your political views.

And, unfortunately, in -- Donald Trump politicized this agency and politicized this detail, to the point that his detail leader eventually became the White House deputy chief of staff on a temporary assignment helping the president execute his political mission, his political campaigns, and even clearing Lafayette Square, forcibly removing peaceful protesters, to help burnish the president's image as a law and order president for his campaign for reelection.

That person is now the assistant director of the Secret Service, has gone back to working for the Secret Service.

Amna Nawaz: Well, Carol, that one particular story about the agent you just mentioned, a man named Anthony Ornato, did strike me, because, as you mentioned, he's back with the Secret Service now.

How does that happen? How does someone go from a protective role, to a political one, back to the protective one? And what does that mean for the Secret Service that the Biden administration has now?

Carol Leonnig: The reason that happened was basically because two things. It was what the president wanted, and it was what the director, the current director, Jim Murray, allowed.

Jim Murray was very close to Tony Ornato. And they agreed that this is how it would be, and that he would temporarily be with the White House, and then he would return to the Secret Service, because he wasn't eligible for the very generous retirement program that the Secret Service has. And so he was going to serve some more years at the Secret Service.

The Biden transition team was pushing quietly, gently for a changeover of agents that would be on the presidential detail. And the Secret Service agreed, ultimately, not to a full changeover, but to install very new and senior supervisors on that detail that Biden knew, that he knew from when he was vice president, because they protected him and ran his detail, and agents who had protected Jill Biden when she was the second lady under the Obama administration.

Amna Nawaz: Carol, you tell the story of a deeply flawed agency. So, what now? What is it going to take to fix it?

Carol Leonnig: I think I'd like to channel the voice of a very, very senior Trump administration official who sat down with me, at some risk to their career, and said that, after analyzing the Secret Service, they were convinced of two things.

One, there was no way that they could deliver on their mission, the ridiculously overlarded mission, protecting the president, plus 40 more people, president's grandchildren, vice president's stepchildren, Cabinet members, also protecting Super Bowls, and Olympics, and the United Nations General Assembly, and investigating financial crimes, and cyber-hacking.

Congress and the White House, this next administration, have to make a commitment to give this team the tools they need to deliver on their zero fail mission. They can't make a mistake on the most important mission, and they're dedicated to delivering on it.

They risked their careers to tell me these secrets. I'm just ringing the alarm bell for them. They are afraid of what's going to happen. And they ask me all the time, are we going to wait for catastrophe, or is somebody going to do something?

Amna Nawaz: The book is "Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service."

The author is Carol Leonnig.

Carol, good to see you. Thanks for being here.

Carol Leonnig: Thanks so much for the great questions, Amna.

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