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Some Agents Fear Underfunded And Overworked Secret Service 'Relying On Luck'

May 17, 2021
Originally published on May 17, 2021 3:21 pm

Every time the president of the United States travels, he's accompanied by a cadre of Secret Service agents. Sometimes seen wearing crisp suits, sunglasses and ear pieces, the agents charged with protecting the president present a striking visual.

But Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig says the Secret Service itself is something of a mess.

In her new book, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, Leonnig charts the agency's "chronic, ridiculously large mission," which includes protecting U.S. political leaders and their family members as well as visiting heads of state. The Secret Service is also charged with investigating financial crimes, such as counterfeit money.

Leonnig says the mission is made all the more challenging by the fact that the Secret Service is understaffed, underfunded and often working with outdated technology and inadequate training.

"Things were so bad in very recent years that agents were showing up to pick up a Cabinet member in their own personal car because the Secret Service's fleet was too expensive to maintain," Leonnig says.

There have also been embarrassing lapses. In March 2017, an intruder scaled the fence surrounding the White House and wandered the grounds, undetected, for 17 minutes. Leonnig says the breach highlighted a systemwide failure.

"The sensors, the cameras, the alarms [and] the radios didn't work," she says. "This is supposed to be the most secure 18 acres in the world, and they just didn't have the money to fix those things."

Secret Service agents are prohibited from speaking to the press without permission, but Leonnig says a number of her sources broke the rule because they were concerned about lapses within the agency.

"They strongly believed that it was a matter of time before a president was shot on their watch," she says. "They're worried that the agency increasingly is relying on luck. And it's really a matter of time before somebody finds the right chink and gets through."


Penguin Random House

Interview Highlights

On the Secret Service being short staffed and burned out

On the White House complex, which is protected by Secret Service officers, people told me that they never got a day off for months at a time. The average was for people to have to work at least one of their two days off every week. You can imagine the burnout that that causes; you can also imagine it affecting your hair-trigger sort of reflexes if there's an actual attack. It also impacts your training. You can't step away from the job to go do your marksmanship training and your attack on the principal training that's supposed to give you those split-second reactions if you're basically called into work every single day. So it's a huge impact.

On how former President Donald Trump's golf trips cost the Secret Service

Every president that travels is taking a small city with him wherever he goes. And, you know, I wrote about President Obama taking a trip to Africa, which featured a little bit of vacation and a little bit of work. And the estimates for the cost of that trip ... were in the tens of millions of dollars. So every president is going to cost a lot of money wherever they go. But what was so unusual about Donald Trump was he was deciding, first, to travel basically every other weekend in the first part of his presidency, wherever he chose to golf. And the second part of that was he was traveling frequently to his own golf clubs. In fact, I don't know of a time that he traveled to someone else's club. So that travel was, again, just bleeding the Secret Service dry. ... They made an emergency request in the spring for [more money] in 2017, just out of fear that they were not going to be able to cover the rest of their missions, including protecting the president and his family and protecting the White House. That's how much more money they needed for his golf trips.

On the 2012 scandal when the advance team of Secret Service agents for Obama had sex workers in their room in Cartagena, Colombia

Agents were flown back, unceremoniously sent packing, because they were under investigation for bringing prostitutes back to their room and turning a presidential trip essentially into like a bachelor's weekend in Vegas. And it really troubled, obviously, President Obama, but it also really upset Congress. And there were these demands for heads to roll. Unfortunately, the Secret Service leadership decided to, instead of look at what this shocking event revealed and try to fix it — they insisted it was a one-off. It was an aberration. Nothing like this ever happened before. And senators weren't buying this when Director Mark Sullivan testified that this was a shocking one-time event. They felt that he was putting his head in the sand. And in fact, what agents told me in the wake of this series of investigations, what they told me was this happened all the time. International trips were a perk for guys who had to work ceaseless hours in a stairwell or walk convention halls for 48 hours. International trips were something people were excited about doing to just sort of blow off some steam and get out of town. There was also a small cadre of Secret Service agents who treated travel on the road with a wheels up, rings off mentality.

On then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton allegedly wanting alone time at a YMCA without his security detail

The agents who have been trained in the security protocols for months to get this plum assignment of protecting a presidential candidate who ends up being president, they are sort of surprised and ask more questions. What gives, boss? Why aren't we going in? We're supposed to shield the guy, or we're supposed to screen the people that see him and the supervisors explain, "Look, drop it. He's here to meet a woman." They were pretty upset about this, not because it was their business to decide for Bill Clinton, the governor and would-be president, who he should be seeing and how he should be spending his time. They were upset because what happened on the other side of that door was their business. It was their job. They'd been trained in all these protocols about how you're supposed to secure someone and someone was telling them to let it slide. I know a lot of people will say this is really salacious, and why do you have to go into this? But what I want you to feel is what it's like to be that agent, when you're expected to be responsible for someone's life, but you're not being allowed to use the rules and the tools to do it. ...

A spokesman for former President Clinton has said that this is not true and it is an implausible scenario, and we report that in the book.

On the main criticisms of the Secret Service after John F. Kennedy's assassination

There were three major criticisms: The first was — and this is not their fault — they were stretched far too thin. What I didn't realize until I really started to look in the archives and the records and the memos [filed] by the director was that the director of the Secret Service, for a year and a half before the Kennedy assassination, had been begging for added agents and added staff, more tools to do the job because honestly, John F. Kennedy was running them ragged. He was an energetic, lively, attractive politician who loved to be with people. And he — a little bit like Donald Trump in one respect — was traveling the country like crazy, mostly to shake hands with voters. But the agents were exhausted, and they were literally standing up asleep a lot of the time. So one of the arguments, one of the complaints was your agency was undermanned. It didn't have enough people to do everything that was necessary to really secure that route in Dallas or any of them before.

The second very personal criticism was that a series of agents — no fewer than five who worked the detail that morning in Dallas — had been out until 2, 3 and 5 a.m. the night before at a private club, drinking, sometimes meeting women. ... As was said in the very, very painful Warren Commission hearings, what man can really have hair-trigger reflexes at 12 noon if he's been up till 2 or 5 in the morning drinking. And that was an unbelievable hair shirt that the service wore for a long time.

The third major criticism was sort of the basic issue of a failure of imagination, to use the term from 9/11. The service was warned in internal confidential memos that there were plots, chatter, if you will, about shooting Kennedy from a high-story building. And it wasn't that hard for the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to find an empty building and shoot at Kennedy very, very close to the route and hit him in the neck and, ultimately, in the head.

On how Kennedy's assassination haunted the Secret Service

What I also think Americans don't really appreciate is while Kennedy's assassination was so, so tragic for the country, it was a gut punch like no other for the Secret Service. That haunted them. It led to suicides. It led to alcoholism. It was one of the worst episodes for the service, for all the obvious reasons, much harder on the service than the country. And they were absolutely determined to never let it happen again. And what's interesting about that for me is that they were vindicated. I mean, the other shootings that have happened, most importantly, the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life. They used their training and their tools, and they made split-second decisions that were the difference between us losing that president and him continuing to live. It was life or death — and they won.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. When you think of the United States Secret Service, what comes to mind? For most of us, it's physically fit men in crisp suits wearing sunglasses and earplugs, intently focused on protecting their president. Our guest, Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig, says it's true the Service is full of devoted patriotic agents committed to their profession. But in a new book based on years of reporting, Leonnig finds that as an organization, the Secret Service is something of a mess. It's understaffed and underfunded, working with outdated technology and inadequate training and burdened by a culture in which promotions are based on personal loyalty to competing bosses, and among its agents and supervisors, heavy drinking, frat boy behavior and sexual harassment have been tolerated.

Leonnig has broken stories about agents hiring prostitutes on a presidential trip to Colombia and the Service's failures in recent years to properly detect and stop intruders on the White House grounds. Her book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with current and former Secret Service agents, officers and directors, Cabinet members and congressional members and staff across eight presidential administrations. Carol Leonnig has been at The Washington Post since 2000. In 2015, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the Secret Service. She was also on teams of Post reporters who won Pulitzers in 2014 and 2018. She was last on FRESH AIR to talk about her book with Philip Rucker on the Trump administration - "A Very Stable Genius." Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service."

Well, Carol Leonnig, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, in theory, the Secret Service is this elite, apolitical law enforcement agency. You know, in practice, they have a lot of contact with powerful politicians, presidents, who have a lot of impact. They have relationships with agents and impact on the agency. What sort of interest did Donald Trump take in the Secret Service?

CAROL LEONNIG: First, Dave, thank you so much for having me. I've been looking forward to the conversation. As a president, Donald Trump made clear he cared very little about governing and literally accused most of the bureaucracy he was responsible for of being a deep state that was in need of significant pruning and also not to be trusted. So his relationship with the Secret Service was really interesting. When he arrives, the Service is at a really important juncture. They're trying to rebuild after, you know, a five-year stretch of weakened budgets stretched too thin and truly comical security failures - funny if they weren't so serious. But Donald Trump doesn't really care very much about that. And what he cares about is how different agencies will be useful to him and useful to his image and useful to his quest to, you know, maintain his grip on power. I find it really fascinating that the service over the decades often takes on the - sort of the impression of the president, is influenced by that person's personality and that person's priorities. And in the case of Donald Trump, many, many, many agents who were on his protective team really found him charming and fascinating and really supported his conservative policies. It's an agency ultimately that leans pretty Republican. And they cheered quietly - and sometimes not so quietly - his policy prescriptions on blocking immigrants and getting tough on criminals.

DAVIES: He did have a certain physical type that he wanted in his own detail.

LEONNIG: Yes, that's right. He complained to some of his supervisors on his detail that he was uncomfortable with some overweight agents that he saw and didn't feel that they could properly protect him. It's ironic because, you know, the president became, you know, statistically technically obese while he was president. It's also interesting because there are very few overweight agents on his detail, and he may have been mistaking other people that were doing office jobs for being his agents, maybe just not really understanding who really was in charge of his protection.

DAVIES: I learned in your book that each president can designate a residence as a second residence besides the White House, which will, of course, then qualify for Secret Service protection. He chose Trump Towers in Manhattan. What special challenges did that pose?

LEONNIG: This was a security challenge that was unprecedented for the Secret Service. It was something that they'd never had to deal with before. And when I say deal with, they can deal with a lot. They protect hundreds of foreign heads of state when they come to New York every September for the United Nations General Assembly. So they can handle a big assignment. They protected the pope flawlessly. But this was incredible and unprecedented because of the expense. They were protecting a 58-story tower in the busiest city in America, Manhattan. It also happened to be a pretty busy tourist and shopping district. And they were protecting it basically for a three-story suite that Melania, the first lady, was going to continue to occupy for about half of the first year of President Trump's presidency, along with her son. It was dwarfing the expense that the Secret Service had ever expended before.

And what the Secret Service didn't know at the time was that Melania Trump chose this as a power move to better negotiate a prenuptial agreement and better her son's chances in running The Trump Organization after Donald Trump stepped down. So she was using this as a bargaining chip not promising to come to Washington. It ended up costing the Secret Service, at least in that first year, $26 million extra.

DAVIES: Another big expense is presidential travel. And, of course, every president travels a lot. You know, President Obama took some vacations to Hawaii where he'd lived as a kid. How was Donald Trump's travel different?

LEONNIG: Every president that travels is taking a small city with him wherever he goes. And, you know, I wrote about President Obama taking a trip to Africa, which featured, you know, a little bit of vacation and a little bit of work. And the estimates for the cost of that trip in a Third World country were in the tens of millions of dollars. So every president is going to cost a lot of money wherever they go. But what was so unusual about Donald Trump was he was deciding first to travel basically every other weekend in the first part of his presidency wherever he chose to golf. And the second part of that was he was traveling frequently to his own golf clubs. In fact, I don't know of a time that he traveled to someone else's club. So that travel was, again, just bleeding the Secret Service dry and cost another $30 million. They made an emergency request in the spring for that amount in 2017 just out of fear that they were not going to be able to cover the rest of their missions, including protecting the president and his family and protecting the White House. That's how much more money they needed for his golf trips.

I would add one more thing, which is Donald Trump as a campaigner insisted that he wouldn't be leaving the White House. He wasn't going to have time for that because he was going to be too busy working for Americans. Turns out, you know, he was in Mara Lago and in Bedminster and in, you know, Potomac Falls, Va., many of those weekends.

DAVIES: And some of the expense of - I don't know - dozens or hundreds of Secret Service personnel got paid to The Trump Organization in some cases, right?

LEONNIG: That's right. The Secret Service spent a lot of money with The Trump Organization. But really what happened - the tip of the iceberg was what the Secret Service was spending. The federal government and everyone else was having to traipse around behind Donald Trump - lobbyists, Republicans, politicians, congressional groups, foreign heads of state - all flocking to wherever Donald Trump was to get his audience. And that ended up being more money in the cash register for Trump Organization.

DAVIES: When the events were at Trump Resorts, and a lot were, right?

LEONNIG: That's right.

DAVIES: Right. You know, as I read the book, I did a double take when I read a passage about Donald Trump Jr. and his wife Vanessa and their security detail. Tell us what you learned here.

LEONNIG: It's an interesting story because, you know, Secret Service agents on a protective detail get very close to a family. In the history of the Secret Service, there have been many times when agents become romantically involved or personally very close to either the people they're protecting or the people - the household around the people they're protecting. In this case, agents who were assigned to the Donald Trump Jr. detail, the family detail, were reporting to their bosses and their colleagues that Vanessa Trump had developed a romantic relationship with one of the agents on the family detail. Ultimately, it was concluded that this relationship was not a violation because Vanessa Trump had essentially ceased receiving protection. Her children and her estranged husband were still getting protection, but she was not.

DAVIES: Because the couple had separated?

LEONNIG: That's right.

DAVIES: And has the Trump family acknowledged that there was a romantic relationship?

LEONNIG: They've declined to comment on this so far. And, I mean, I have talked to many agents who know of their reports of this and witnessed some of that close relationship firsthand.

DAVIES: You know, as long as we're on the subject of relationships between Secret Service agents and the first family and presidents, there's some interesting material in here about Bill Clinton and agents who had to protect him while he wanted "private time," quote-unquote. You want to talk a bit about what you learned from agents about the challenges that his off-the-record travels or time spent with people posed?

LEONNIG: President Clinton, at that time actually candidate Clinton, was frequently jogging. He had a routine - jog away from the governor's mansion in Little Rock to a YMCA where he was supposedly working out, getting a shower, and then he was going to go to the McDonald's, visit with some voters and then head back home to work. But agents who arrived in Little Rock to help protect candidate Clinton remember when he is the presidential nominee, the Democratic nominee for this office, they're protecting him, and they arrive in Little Rock to find out from their supervisors that, you know, we're not going to go inside the YMCA. We're just going to stay outside here. The agents who have been trained in the security protocols for months to get this plum assignment of protecting a presidential candidate who ends up being president, they are sort of surprised and ask more questions. What gives, boss? Why aren't we going in? That's - you know, we're supposed to shield the guy, or we're supposed to screen the people that see him. And the supervisors explain, look, drop it. He's here to meet a woman. They were pretty upset about this. You know, they'd been trained in all these protocols about how you're supposed to secure someone, and someone was telling them to let it slide.

I know a lot of people will say this is really salacious, and why do you have to go into this? But what I want you to feel is what it's like to be that agent when you're expected to be responsible for someone's life, but you're not being allowed to use the rules and the tools to do it. And, you know, we're not - we're - right now, in this instance, we're way beyond an embarrassing moment for a politician. We're now at this juncture where you're making it impossible for the agent to do their job.

DAVIES: Yeah. And heaven forbid something goes wrong while he's out of your sight. This continued while he was president, too, right? I mean, you've mentioned that there would be times he would want to make a, quote, "off-the-record trip" to some address in Virginia or a Georgetown row house, too, right?

LEONNIG: Yes. And, you know, the significance of this for me was that, you know, obviously we all know what happened with Monica Lewinsky and agents who were pulled in ultimately to testify before a federal grand jury about what they saw when the president was alone with this young intern. But it's got a much bigger historical importance, Dave. It's - you know, the same thing happened with John F. Kennedy's agents. They - I remember talking to them about how really personally hurt they were, how upset they were because they were feeling as though they couldn't be sure whether they were going to find him alive in the morning after on the road, he's in a hotel with a woman they've never screened or two women. They were worried. Could she be a Mata Hari, the woman that was in his room? Could she decide to drug him or hurt him? And, you know, if we're not following the rules in the most elite agency in the world, then, you know, our democracy is in danger.

DAVIES: Has the Clinton family responded to any of this material?

LEONNIG: Yes. A spokesman for former President Clinton has said that this is not true, and it is an implausible scenario. And we report that in the book.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Carol Leonnig. She's an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig. She has a new book about the Secret Service and some of its failings called "Zero Fail." You know, it's interesting. I didn't realize this, but in a 36-year period from 1865 to 1901, three American presidents were assassinated - Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. And then from Kennedy's assassination in 1963 to 1981, in that stretch, five aspiring assassins got close enough to actually fire gunshots at presidents or presidential candidates. The threat is real. The Kennedy assassination was a shattering, traumatic event for the service, obviously, and they were criticized by the investigators for doing a poor job of protecting him. What were the criticisms?

LEONNIG: There were three major criticisms. The first was - and this is not their fault - they were stretched far too thin. What I didn't realize until I really started to look in the archives and the records and the memos-to-file by the director was that the director of the Secret Service for a year and a half before the Kennedy assassination had been begging for added agents and added staff, more tools to do the job, because, honestly, John F. Kennedy was running them ragged. His - he was an energetic, lively, attractive politician who loved to be with people. And he, a little bit like Donald Trump in one respect, was traveling the country like crazy, mostly to shake hands with voters. But the agents were exhausted, and they were literally standing up asleep a lot of the time. So one of the arguments - one of the complaints was your agency was undermanned. It didn't have enough people to do everything that was necessary to really secure that route in Dallas or any of them before.

The second very personal criticism was that a series of agents, no fewer than five who worked the detail that morning in Dallas, had been out until 2, 3 and 5 a.m. the night before at a private club drinking, sometimes meeting women. But, you know, as was said in the very, very painful Warren Commission hearings, you know, what man can really have hair-trigger reflexes at 12 noon if he's been up till 2 or 5 in the morning drinking? And that was an unbelievable hair shirt that the service wore for a long time.

The third major criticism was sort of the basic issue of a failure of imagination, to use the term from 9/11. The service was warned in internal confidential memos that there were plots, chatter, if you will, about shooting Kennedy from a high-story building. And it wasn't that hard for the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to find an empty building and shoot at Kennedy very, very close to the route and hit him in the neck and ultimately in the head.

DAVIES: Yeah. So after that, the Secret Service did make a habit of looking at routes much more carefully and, you know, posting snipers and planning for the possibility of a sniper attack. It's interesting that none of the agents who were out drinking before they went to their shifts were disciplined, right?

LEONNIG: You know, I find this moment one of the most fascinating because Director Rowley today, Director Rowley of the Secret Service at the time, you know, he would normally get his hat handed to him and fired the next morning. But Rowley refuses to, you know, bow his head in shame. He knows that he's worked his tail off to make this agency stronger, and he also feels it's really important not to lay this guilt on his agents. He's going to defend them, and he's going to defend the agency. And the most important thing that Jim Rowley does is he puts his entire shoulder into rebuilding, restrengthening, and he will not take no for an answer this time. He gets 280 new agents. He gets tens of millions of dollars in technology. And on the issue of drinking, you know, he basically says, look, I don't think that that made the difference. I understand why you want to blame them, but I don't think that that is what stopped these guys.

What I also think Americans don't really appreciate is while Kennedy's assassination was so, so tragic for the country, it was a gut punch like no other for the Secret Service. I mean, that haunted them. I mean, it led to suicides. It led to alcoholism. It was one of the worst episodes for the service for all the obvious reasons, much harder on the service than the country, and they were absolutely determined to never let it happen again. And what's interesting about that for me is that they were vindicated. I mean, the other shootings that have happened, most importantly, the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life, they used their training and their tools, and they made split-second decisions that were the difference between, you know, us losing that president and him continuing to live. It was life or death. And they won.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here again. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Carol Leonnig. She's an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service." She'll be back to talk more about the Secret Service after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "WATER IN CUPPED HANDS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest is Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig. She has a new book about the United States Secret Service, whose reputation as an elite law enforcement unit has been tarnished in recent years by a series of embarrassing episodes, from failing to properly detect and stop intruders on the White House grounds to heavy drinking and the hiring of prostitutes by agents on a presidential trip to Colombia. Leonnig's book about the management dysfunction at the agency is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service."

The service has had a lot of problems in recent years, from understaffing and inadequate budgeting and outdated technology. And you write about this a lot. And a lot of this really came into public view after an event in 2012, which had really had much more to do with conduct of agents off the job, right? I mean, they had a reputation for enjoying nightlife when they were on the road. This involved a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, April, 2012. President Obama was president. And the advanced team had a night before he was to arrive. What made this blow up into a scandal?

LEONNIG: You know, I hate to say it. But what made it blow up into a scandal was it became public. I mean, it was the first - it was so scandalizing because never - everyone had this impression of the Secret Service agents as these buttoned-down guys, perfect in their diet, their training and, of course, their moral rectitude. And what we saw in Cartagena was a dozen agents were flown back unceremoniously, sent packing because they were under investigation for bringing prostitutes back to their room and turning a presidential trip, essentially, into, like, a bachelor's weekend in Vegas. And it really troubled, obviously, President Obama. But it also really upset Congress. And there were these demands for heads to roll.

Unfortunately, the Secret Service leadership decided to instead of look at what this, you know, shocking event revealed and try to fix it, they insisted it was a one-off. It was an aberration. Nothing like this ever happened before. And senators weren't buying this when Director Mark Sullivan testified that this was a shocking one-time event. They felt that he was putting his head in the sand. And, in fact, what agents told me in the wake of this, you know, series of investigations, what they told me was this happened all the time.

This was, you know - international trips were a perk for guys who had to work, you know, ceaseless hours in a stairwell or walk convention halls for 48 hours. You know, this - international trips were something people were excited about doing to just sort of blow off some steam and get out of town. There was also a small cadre of Secret Service agents who treated travel on the road with a wheels-up, rings-off mentality. The problem is that the director is denying this ever happens. The agents are saying, oh, yes, it does. And without transparency and without focusing on this, it's going to continue.

DAVIES: You know, one might look at this and say, well, this, you know, is not admirable behavior. But, you know, people were off duty, in some cases, taking advantage of the services of sex workers that were legal in their context. Certainly, you know, not what you'd like to see. But does it jeopardize the mission of the Secret Service?

LEONNIG: It's a pretty big deal in terms of security. First off, if you're bringing prostitutes back to your hotel room and you're a Secret Service agent responsible for securing the president's visit and he's about to arrive in about 32 hours, you have a gun in your room. You have security information. You have an actual plan on your phone and, perhaps, on paper of where the president's going to be, when. So one of the big issues is if any of those women are a Mata Hari or a spy or an adversary, they have access now to where the president's going to be and how easy it would be to get him if you wanted to. The other thing that's really important is if you're drinking, you're not - you're compromised. If you are so loaded you can't remember that the prostitute demanded X number of hundreds of dollars and you wake up not sure exactly who's in your room, you're not exactly the most secure U.S. official. And whatever happens to you could come back and hurt the president.

DAVIES: When President Obama became a candidate, a serious candidate, and then became the first African American president, was there a particularly ramped up concern about his safety, an increased level of threat?

LEONNIG: There absolutely was a really very serious concern. In the weeks and months leading up to his inauguration after he had won the election, the number of threats against his life were deemed to be four times larger than the threats against a previous president. Of course, that was because he was a Black man. And there were a lot of white supremacist groups that were chattering about how they were going to, you know, kill him and take him down before he could take office. The Secret Service took that seriously. Director Sullivan worked very hard to try to get additional resources to shield him at the White House. Some of his requests were met and some of them were not.

DAVIES: You know, we should note that there was also a lawsuit filed, I believe, in 2000 by African American agents within the service alleging patterns of racial discrimination. What kind of information did it yield? And what was the outcome?

LEONNIG: This was a really dramatic moment for the Secret Service because there have been many racial discrimination lawsuits filed against different employers and institutions. But in the Secret Service, this was like a cry of war. When Black agents decided that they had had enough of the racism and racist comments, nooses left in a training office and the fact that they were promoted so less frequently based on excellent ratings than their white peers - when they decided to file suit, they were blackballed inside the agency.

White agents refused to work with them. They were harassed. They were threatened by their superiors. It was a pretty serious situation. What that lawsuit uncovered was that a lot of senior supervisors were making racist jokes on a not-infrequent basis. And that material, it took a long time for the Secret Service to cough it up in that lawsuit discovery. But under threat of a federal judge, they finally did. And, you know, it really embarrassed some of those white supervisors because they were caught red handed.

DAVIES: Did it lead to change? Were there financial - was financial compensation paid?

LEONNIG: You know, the Service pretty stubbornly held out for a long, long, long time, refusing to reach a settlement, insisting - each director insisting that they weren't going to do it. But under a Cabinet Secretary Jeh Johnson, who headed the Department of Homeland Security under Obama, a very large, multimillion dollar settlement was paid to the agents as sort of pain and suffering money for what they had gone through and for the promotions they were passed over for.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Carol Leonnig. She's an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Carol Leonnig. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service."

You know, I think the heart of your book is really about how the Secret Service's effectiveness has been compromised by underfunding and understaffing and bad leadership and other issues. And, you know, after the scandals about off duty conduct, the agency gets a new director, its first woman director, Julia Pierson. And it's interesting, you write that when she goes to see President Obama's budget staff, she says, I need to declare bankruptcy on behalf of the Secret Service. And they say, well, what do you mean? She says, I'm absolutely serious. What is she talking about?

LEONNIG: She's talking about an agency that for too long has just not asked for help or has been turned down. So many parts of the safety net around the White House and around the president needed an upgrade for decades. So those needs were crying out. She also sees that our officers and our agents aren't able to get promoted to their new jobs because they don't have enough money to move them to their new jobs. She has all these empty positions, important ones. But she can't send people to those places because she doesn't have the money. She sees the travel budget going up, but the funding not going up. And she also sees that without more people, she can't do what the service is supposed to do, which is train routinely. And she's basically pleading for this. She, you know, is kind of a nerd in terms of her focus on budget compared to other directors. But she knows it backwards and forwards. And she can't be talked off of it. But she doesn't get very much help.

DAVIES: Yeah. I believe you said that she was down 600 employees in the civil service. Eighty-six supervisory positions were vacant. What's the impact of these shortfalls on the agents and officers and their lives and work?

LEONNIG: You know, on the White House complex, which is protected by Secret Service officers, people told me that they never got a day off for months at a time. Some - the average was for people to have to work at least one of their two days off every week. You can imagine the burnout that that causes. You can also imagine it affecting your hair-trigger sort of reflexes if there's an actual attack. It also impacts your training. You can't step away from the job to go do your marksmanship training and your attack on the principal training that's supposed to give you those split-second reactions if you're basically called into work every single day. So it's a huge impact.

DAVIES: Right. And then electronic equipment gets out of date or out of maintenance. And, you know, there was, frankly, a series of embarrassing episodes in the last few years of the Secret Service failing at its basic function of ensuring the safety of the president and the first family. You want to take one of these episodes and describe it?

LEONNIG: There are so many. I think I'd like to take you to 2017, if I may, because even though that's not on Director Pierson's watch, it's just interesting. The service has been alerted in 2014 that it has a lot of problems when a mentally struggling Iraq war veteran, who also has a limp and is wearing plastic crocs, somehow gets from the White House fence line, a public sidewalk, inside the White House mansion in 29 seconds. He passes in through a zone that's protected by 150 Secret Service officers and agents and personnel. And he gets deep into the mansion up to the landing of the president's personal residence.

Now, that was an epic black eye for the Secret Service. And it prompted all these calls for, you know, drastic improvements, technological upgrades, added staff - 280, to be exact. But in March, 2017, a good 2 1/2 years later, the almost identical thing happens. Another mentally struggling person who's suffering with delusions of paranoid schizophrenia hops over a wall on the northeast corner of the White House and makes it past a hundred yards, three different man stations, all of the security cameras, several of the alarms, the sensors that are supposed to tell people where the intruder is are on the fritz. And for 17 minutes, this man, Jonathan Tran, is on the White House grounds uninterrupted. He had such a large amount of time to casually spend on the White House grounds that he sat down and tied his shoe. He leisurely wandered over to the East Wing entrance - no running - and jiggled a door that is an entryway to, you know, the presidential mansion.

DAVIES: Are things getting any better? I assume you're still in touch with agents. I mean, these - there have been a whole series of embarrassing episodes.

LEONNIG: Agents tell me that several things have gotten better, but a lot of things haven't improved at all. So, for example, the Service has more people on deck now since those terrible episodes in 2014 and 2015. They've struggled to keep those positions filled because people leave because of burnout. But the thing that isn't improving for them is the sort of chronic, ridiculously large mission that they have and the lack of tools and funding to back it up. Remember, this agency protects a president everywhere he goes, but it also protects 42 other people - you know, a vice president's stepchild, a president's grandchild, Cabinet members. Things were so bad in very recent years that agents were showing up to pick up a Cabinet member in their own personal car because the Secret Service's fleet was too expensive to maintain. They couldn't keep up with it. You know, it brings you back to the days of that March 2017 jumping incident where the sensors, the cameras, the alarms, the radios didn't work. You know, this is supposed to be the most secure 18 acres in the world, and they just didn't have the money to fix those things.

DAVIES: Late in the book, you quote an agent who spoke to you as saying that the promotion system in the Secret Service closely resembles La Cosa Nostra. What did he mean?

LEONNIG: It's so sad - that basically there are, you know, little tribes and have been for a long time in the Secret Service and that if you're going to get promoted to a very high rank, which is important - important for your salary, important for your seniority, important for your future career after the Service - if you're going to get that, you're going to have to tow the line for the tribe that brought you up. And sometimes your toeing the line will mean keeping quiet about a mistake that was colossal that one of your tribe made. Sometimes it will be doctoring a document so that this doesn't come back to hurt anybody in your tribe. And it rang true to me what he said because I've heard so many agents talk about when they were made, you know, meaning I got made, I got my big supervisor job. That's what the mafiosa says, you know, the capos get made.

Unfortunately, that element of the Secret Service sort of overshadows all of the incredible dedication of these agents and officers. I want to stress how impressed I am by the people I've met, the things they're willing to sacrifice and give of their personal life, of their physical health, you know, of their basic rights to have a normal life, I don't know that I could do it. I'm in awe of them. But this feature of the leadership is kind of crushing them. And I think they deserve better. And I think when people read my book, "Zero Fail," they'll also agree this isn't the best America can do for these kind of patriots.

DAVIES: Well, Carol Leonnig, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEONNIG: Thank you for this great conversation, Dave.

DAVIES: Carol Leonnig is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Zero Fail: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Service." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, "Notes On Grief." This is FRESH AIR.

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