TAKING A BULLET
If you fail in this business, you could lose the president.
At no point did anyone ever say to me, your job is to take a bullet for the president of the United States.
Legend has it there's a blood oath that Secret Service agents take in which we swear to lay down our own life to save the president's. There is no such pledge, no such promise, and, maybe even more important, no such requirement. It's a myth, nothing more than part of the mystique that surrounds the Secret Service. Instead, the reality of the job--and this, perhaps, best defines the fundamental principle of the Secret Service--is to do absolutely everything possible to prevent such a decision from ever having to be made.
It goes without saying that protecting the president can be dangerous, and, yes, there may be a moment when, because of where we are, getting killed is a real possibility. But police officers face that same possibility every day. So, too, firemen, soldiers, sailors, and pilots. Danger is hardly unique to the Secret Service. Because no one ever knows for sure how he or she will react in a life-threatening situation, we try to leave nothing to chance. We practice assassinations at speeches and at rallies and in motorcades, getting in and out of the car. We don't use professional drivers; we train our own agents todrive the presidential limousine because that driver is the most important person in the motorcade. Armored to our specifications, the limousine is much heavier than a regular car and a lot harder to drive. It doesn't respond the way a standard Cadillac limousine would respond. In an emergency, the driver may have to do something--break through a barricade or execute a J-turn--and even though there is always a supervisor sitting next to him, there might be a few seconds when the life of the president hangs on the driver's instinctive reaction. So we work a lot of assassination scenarios around cars, all of them authentically played out with presidential limousines and crowds and explosives, and with mock assassins firing guns.
However, the classic scenario for an "attack on the principal" (AOP) is the rope line, where the president shakes hands over the simple barrier that separates him from the crowd. It's a very dangerous time, because you don't always know who's in the crowd. Even if you've controlled access by putting everyone through a metal detector--known as a magnetometer--you cannot trust the machine to pick up everything. In theory, the metal detector should spot a gun. But there's always the possibility that someone can get through with an explosive device or something simple, like a pen, with which he plans to stab the president. So you look for anomalies, for something that doesn't fit, for the man who's not smiling, for the woman who's wearing a heavy coat on a warm day, for someone who appears unusually nervous.
The level of crowd emotion is always high when the president is near enough to touch, and agents need to see that emotion reflected in everyone's eyes. I would stand within a hand's reach of him, ready to grab him around the waist and yank him away, all the time looking into eyes for a stare that told me the person wasn't happy to see the president up close. And I would also be looking at hands, for the person who wasn't trying to shake hands with the president. Anyone whose hands were in his pockets was someone I needed toworry about. That's why there were agents in front of the president, and behind him, too, looking into eyes and saying to people in the crowd, "Let me see your hands, please ... . Hands, please. Let me see your hands."
It's not a perfect science, but rather a technique that can be learned and perfected with practice, which is why the Secret Service teaches it and why we practice it over and over and over again. Agents on the president's detail, and on the vice president's detail, too, spend two weeks out of every two months at the Secret Service training center at Beltsville, Maryland, going through realistic situations that have been specifically designed to create instinctive reactions to a single second's madness.
Although the Beltsville facility was pretty basic when I first went through there in 1971, today it is a small town--much like a movie set--with city blocks featuring façades of office buildings and hotels. They have a series of roads for motorcades and a Boeing 707 to work scenarios involving airplanes. As a supervisor I'd go out there every couple of months to train with the details. On one occasion, with an agent named Frank Larkin playing the president, I was working a rope line, exactly the way I did many times with Ronald Reagan as he shook hands with people in the crowd. Suddenly, someone started firing at us, and the crowd panicked. Instinctively, I grabbed Frank, threw him into the back of the limousine, and we took off. It's the most basic technique in the manual--called "cover and evacuate"--because it's the best thing to do. You cover the president, get him into the car, and evacuate him from the scene, leaving the shift agents to take care of the scene itself.
Once we were safely out of the way, I turned around to say something to Frank, but he was sprawled across the rear seat with blood pouring out of his mouth and down the front of his suit. I froze. Having served in combat, having seen the results of shootings, having seen blood, I know about the effect of shock. In some cases it lasts for a few seconds, in some cases it lasts longer. For the most partit depends on how dramatic the shooting is and how often you've seen such things. In this case, the shock of seeing blood, which I hadn't expected, lasted only a split second. It turned out that Hollywood blood packs were the latest addition to the training. I blurted out, "You scared the hell out of me. I thought you were really hurt." That was the idea.
Prior to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the Secret Service didn't run a lot of complex assassination scenarios. But by the 1970s, we had Beltsville and were going through them regularly, training agents to act instinctively, which is not necessarily the same as doing what comes naturally. For example, most people duck when they hear gunshots. It's the predictable response of policemen and soldiers. They get down low to protect themselves before returning fire. But Secret Service agents need to do just the opposite, which is an unnatural reaction. When shots are fired, we're trained to pull our weapon, stand up straight, and return fire. Instead of protecting ourselves, we turn ourselves into a larger target. That's one reason why all of our weapons training is done standing up. We don't do any prone shooting.
If you study the film footage of the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981, what you see is agents standing up while the president's military aide is diving to the ground. This is not a criticism of the army, because that's what the aide had been trained to do. He responded to his training by hitting the ground; the agents responded to theirs by standing tall. If I heard shots today, I'm sure that I would stand up, at least until I realized that's not a good thing for me to be doing at this point in my life, at which time, I hope, it wouldn't take me long to get back down.
Our training put a lot of emphasis on shooting. I wasn't a particularly good shot in the navy, where I found that with automatic weapons I could just spray an area and let the weapon do the work. But I became a marksman in the Secret Service because there was so much weapons training. Agents are required to qualify with theirhandgun once a month--mine was a .357 Magnum, but the service now uses 9mm semiautomatics--and with the Uzi submachine gun and the shotgun once a quarter. Handgun qualification was done at a small range in the basement of the U.S. Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, while the quarterly qualification was an eight-hour ordeal at Beltsville, when an agent was put through all the various judgmental courses. The best of those was called Hogan's Alley, which is a city street where pop-up targets suddenly appear and you have to shoot the bad guys and not shoot the good guys and have only have a fraction of a second to decide who's who. It's terrific training. So the Secret Service made us all good shots, which was a necessity for agents. If we ever found ourselves shooting into a crowd, we had to hit our target.
Our sidearm wasn't the only thing we always carried. There was a speed loader for the revolver, giving us more bullets, the radio and the famous earpiece, an armored vest--all agents were required to wear the vest whenever we were with a protectee--and handcuffs. All agents were required to have them, too, although I admit that when I was with the president, I never bothered. I figured that if he and I found ourselves in a position where I needed to handcuff someone, we were in the wrong place and needed to get out of there fast.
Another important aspect of Secret Service training is medical emergencies, which pose the highest risk to the president. We become experts in "ten-minute medicine." We learn to stabilize someone for ten minutes because, by design, wherever we travel with the president, we are never more than ten minutes away from professional medical attention. Whether the emergency is a heart attack or a stroke, a shooting, a broken leg, or an automobile accident, we train to keep someone alive for ten minutes. We can't perform a tracheotomy, but we can clear an airspace to keep that person breathing until someone arrives on the scene who can perform a tracheotomy. We are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and on defibrillators, which weren't aseasy to use then as they are now. In my day we spent as much time cursing the dummies as we did defibrillating them. Today defibrillators are very compact and so easy to operate that we call them "agentproof."
Legislation creating the Secret Service was on Abraham Lincoln's desk waiting to be signed on the night he was assassinated. In those days, a reported one-third of the currency then in circulation in the United States was counterfeit, and Lincoln's idea was to create the nation's first federal law-enforcement agency, housed in the Treasury Department, to protect all the financial instruments of the United States. Today, in addition to preventing counterfeiting and the theft or forging of government checks, our investigative mission includes protecting against fraud involving credit cards, computers, ATMs, and electronic transfers. Over the years, the Secret Service investigated the Teapot Dome scandal, numerous government land frauds, the machinations of the Ku Klux Klan, and espionage activities during the Spanish-American War. In 1908, the government moved nine Secret Service "operatives" out of Treasury and put them in the Justice Department. This new corps of federal agents worked directly for the attorney general and would eventually become the nucleus of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The most significant change in the mission of the Secret Service came in 1901. In the aftermath of the assassination of President William McKinley--the third president to be killed in thirty-six years--Congress directed the Secret Service to protect the president. Today, protection is the Secret Service's primary responsibility. In addition to the president and vice president, the service protects their spouses and their immediate families, former officeholders, and visiting heads of state. Following the Robert Kennedy assassination, which took place during the 1968 primary election campaign, the mission was expanded to protect presidential candidates as well.
Because the president can order the Secret Service to protectanyone under threat, there have been times when we've protected cabinet officers, the national security advisor, and the White House chief of staff. On a couple of occasions, after threats were made against Senator Ted Kennedy, President Reagan ordered us to protect him. We have also protected the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Gutenberg Bible, and the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, when it was exhibited in the United States in 1962-1963.
It's important to note that the protection afforded the president and the vice president is statutory. They have no choice in the matter. They cannot simply decide one day that they don't want to be protected. I suppose a president could say, I don't like this particular agent, and transfer him out, but that doesn't really happen--although I've heard stories about Lyndon Johnson getting angry with agents and shouting at them, "You're fired." Many of those same agents were fired by Johnson five and six times.
In the end, the Secret Service can only provide as much protection as the protectee is willing to accept. How close in we get, or how far away we stand, depends entirely on circumstance. I joined President Reagan's detail two years after he'd been shot, at a time when everyone was extremely concerned about him. We raised the bar to protect him, and he went along with that, sometimes to the point of actually overriding the advice of his staff.
For instance, when it was announced that he would address the United Nations in September 1986, the staff decided that after the president's speech, he should walk from the podium into the General Assembly and sit with the U.S. delegation during the next speech. From a public relations viewpoint, it was a fine idea. But from a security viewpoint, it was quite the opposite. We had no control over who would be in the room, nor could we put magnetometers at the doors, which meant that anybody could come in carrying anything they wanted, including a weapon. And we had reason for concern: Only five months before, President Reagan had ordered thebombing of Libya, and the U.S. delegation sat almost directly in front of the Libyan delegation. There was simply no way we were going to place him in that kind of danger. But the staff was insistent that this could be done safely and refused to accept our evaluation that it could not. We went round and round over this, until, finally, it became necessary to see the president.
We didn't have a scheduled appointment that day, so Bill Henkel and I stood outside the Oval Office and waited for a break between meetings. Vice President George Bush and chief of staff Don Regan were there when we walked in. The president wasn't expecting to see me. He turned to Regan with a worried look on his face. "What's this meeting about?"
Regan told him. "A security issue."
Immediately, the president said, "You already know how I'm going to come out on this one."
Bill explained the situation, and I told him why we were very much against his sitting with the U.S. delegation. "With diplomatic immunity, anybody can bring weapons into the General Assembly. What's more, the Libyan delegation would be right behind you."
The president shrugged. "Maybe this is something George should do."
Everybody laughed, and Vice President Bush said, "Sure, I'll even paint a big bull's-eye on my back."
And that was the end of that. The president came down on the side of the Secret Service. He did not sit with the delegation.
No, the job is not about a blood oath to stop a bullet. It's about doing everything humanly possible to avoid finding yourself in a situation where you have to make that decision. It's about always controlling the environment and wrapping the president in a cocoon of safety. That begins with our "three perimeter" philosophy. We set up a series of boundaries. The outer perimeter is usually a show of force by uniformed police manning barricades. Their job is to keep people at a safe distance from the president. Inside that, we set upa middle perimeter, which is made up of Secret Service agents and uniformed police standing post. We put them at doors and in hallways, around the building to encircle it, and on rooftops. Their job is to make certain that anyone who might have somehow managed to get beyond the outer perimeter can get no farther. Included here is a major deterrent called the CAT--the Secret Service's Counter Assault Team--a group of men so heavily armed with automatic weapons and other arms that they could just about take over a small country. Then there is an inner perimeter, which is the Secret Service detail immediately surrounding the president. They see to it that anyone who, against the odds, has gotten through the outer and middle perimeters is now stopped. The three-perimeter concept is the same fundamental principle whether the president is attending a rally with fifteen thousand people or on a golf course with three other people. There are always perimeters.
Inside those perimeters we "create an atmosphere" that permeates every inch of every event. When we step off an elevator with the president, there should be a "clean" hallway, not one in which clusters of people are milling about. The only person we want to see is the advance agent who's going to lead us to the suite. When the hallway is clean and there's no noise and it's dignified, we know that everything is under control. We want every place to be quiet, dignified, and secure, just like the hallway outside the Oval Office, where everyone thinks, "I shouldn't be here," and where everyone whispers.
The more effectively we micromanage the environment, the more effectively we can protect the president. We work with his staff to control where he goes, how he gets there, who gets close to him, and how close that person gets. And all the time we look for irregularities. That's why we study assassinations, to see where those anomalies were missed. We sit in classrooms and run films back and forth, just like a football team going over game films, trying to see what happened and how it happened and how it could have been prevented. We study every assassination and every attempted assassination,wherever it happened, to learn from the mistakes of others, and from our own mistakes. And when we talk about our own mistakes, at the top of the list is Dallas, November 1963.
We study the assassination of John F. Kennedy endlessly. I long ago lost count of how many times I've seen the Zapruder film. I have no wish to get bogged down in conspiracy theories, but I will say I have never seen any evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill President Kennedy. I've read the books and gone through the theories that say Oswald did not act alone, but the assassination we study has Oswald perched on the southeast corner of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza. What happened that day was the result of a series of breakdowns, on several levels.
The presidential limousine in which Kennedy rode was a Lincoln convertible with a removable protective bubble top. The agents with the president wanted to keep the bubble top on, and that would have saved John Kennedy's life. But it was a beautiful day, and someone decided to take the bubble top off. There is reason to believe that the president himself made that decision.
There was also talk about putting agents on the back of the limousine. There was a running board that could be extended past the rear bumper. It's possible that if agents had been standing on it, they might have blocked Oswald's line of sight. It's speculative, but at least Oswald's angle of attack would have been different with agents between him and the president. Then, even if the first shot had been successful, he probably would not have managed to fire a lethal second shot from the rear because the agents on the running board would have reacted immediately to cover the president. As I read the Warren Commission Report, it seems that the president was the one who said, No agents on the back of the car.
The third breakdown was in the choice of a parade route through downtown Dallas, where thousands of windows could have provided an assassin a vantage point. Compounding matters, the parade routewas publicized in advance. Today, we don't publicize parade routes, although that, in and of itself, is not protection. But in Dallas that morning, everybody knew where the president would be and when he would be there.
The fourth breakdown was in not properly sweeping Dealey Plaza. It was an obviously dangerous place. The Texas School Book Depository provided one of several good spots for a sniper. It was also the last building on the route having a vantage point of the motorcade.
When I went to see Dealey Plaza for myself some years after the assassination, I was amazed at how short the distance was from Oswald's hiding place to the president's limousine. Nor had I realized until then that the fatal shot was not a marksman's sweep across the plaza from left to right, but linear, meaning up and down. The motorcade was moving away from the depository, so the target was always in a straight line. Oswald also had a scope, which made the target very big. While I don't know how advanced his weapons training was in the military, I do know that anybody who'd served in the military and had reasonable rifle skills could have hit the president. The shot was much easier than most people realize. There was speculation just after the assassination that Oswald's rifle--it had a bolt action--could not be fired three times in rapid succession, but it can be, and many people have since shown that it can.
In the final analysis, though, what matters most to the Secret Service is that we lost the president. We failed. And in my mind, it was a failure of negotiation. The bubble top was a negotiation. Had the agents pushed harder to put it on the limousine, would they have saved the president? Undoubtedly. So I'd often wonder, How hard do I have to push? I'd ask myself, If something happens, will it be because I did not push enough? I constantly worried when I was responsible for the president. There was a persistent uneasiness always churning just below the surface wherever we went anywhere with him. And that uneasiness would torment me on foreign trips. Mycounterpart in some other country would try to assure me, "We're responsible for the president's safety while he's here." I'd have to tell him that he might think he is responsible, but if something happened to the president, anywhere in the world, the Secret Service would have to answer to Congress and to the American people. Our responsibility is simply not negotiable.
The assassination of Robert Kennedy illustrates the significant difference between a bodyguard and a protective detail. On June 5, 1968, Kennedy finished a campaign speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and was heading out of the hotel through a pantry next to the kitchen. His bodyguard, L.A. Rams football star Rosie Grier, was there primarily to protect him from overenthusiastic crowds, not to prevent an assassination. Would Bobby Kennedy have been murdered by Sirhan Sirhan if he'd had Secret Service protection? The answer is a qualified no. Had Secret Service agents been around, Sirhan Sirhan would have had to change his tactic. Without the Secret Service, Bobby Kennedy was much more vulnerable.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In this case, agents might have been a deterrent to assassination, but the problem was the balcony and the fact that it's not easy to protect someone from a sniper. No one with Dr. King was looking at windows, as agents would have. But then, agents would not have put him in a second-floor room where the only way in and out was along an open balcony. We would have kept him on the ground floor, where we could control physical and visual access to him. A lot of the decisions that were made by Dr. King and his staff would not have been made by Secret Service agents.
The attack on Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981, is a classic case of dealing with an assassin who is willing to give up his own life. It's tough to defend against someone who is willing to die--as we've seen all too often since September 11--chancesare he can get close enough to his target to be a very serious threat. Mehmet Ali Agca was just another face in a crowd of nearly a hundred thousand people that day, until he got within point-blank range and fired several times. The pope was in a wide-open car with Vatican security officers forming an inner perimeter around him. But there were no effective middle or outer perimeters, making it impossible to protect him in that crowd.
The attempted murder of Alabama governor George Wallace in May 1972 is another case we've studied closely. As a candidate for president, Wallace was attending a political rally at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland. He spoke to the small crowd from behind a bulletproof shield, but then moved away from the podium to shake hands in the crowd. Suddenly, a twenty-two-year-old man named Arthur Bremer appeared with a .38 and got off five shots. All five hit Wallace, who was crippled for life. Three other people were also wounded, including agent Nick Zarvos, who took a bullet in the neck. Looking at the films, you see that, as soon as Bremer fired, agents dived for him, because that's what they were trained to do. They expected that, if there was a problem, it would come from the crowd and that there would be a gun. In those days, crowds weren't subjected to magnetometers. After the shooting, Bremer's diary was found. In it he wrote that he'd tried to kill Richard Nixon but could never get close enough because the Secret Service was always in the way.
How many times does that happen? We don't know. How many times do people think about doing something but stop because there are Secret Service agents between them and their target? More than we will ever know.
There were two attempts on the life of President Gerald Ford. The first occurred in Sacramento, California, on September 5, 1975, when a strange woman named Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme--a follower of mass murderer Charles Manson--broke through a crowd and pointed a handgun at the president. My friend Larry Buendorfwas working the rope line right where Fromme was standing. He spotted the .45 coming out of her coat pocket, and lunged for it. He got his thumb between the hammer and the firing pin so that when she pulled the trigger, the gun didn't fire. He wrestled her to the ground as other agents arrived. By that time, the president was in the car and out of there. Fromme got close because we didn't run people through metal detectors during those years.
Seventeen days later, in San Francisco, the president was just coming out of the St. Francis Hotel to get into the limousine when Sara Jane Moore fired off a round from across the street. The bullet missed the president and lodged in the wall of the hotel. Ironically, the night before the attack, Moore had been interviewed by the Secret Service because she'd written a threatening letter. After talking to her, an agent determined that she wasn't dangerous.
A few weeks after that, President Ford was giving a speech in an auditorium at the University of Michigan, with balloons in the room, and one of the balloons popped. Ford immediately ducked behind the podium as agents stood up and reached for their weapons. One agent was unfairly criticized in the media for reacting like that, but he did what he was trained to do. Everybody reacted properly. Even Ford was criticized for being so edgy, but a bursting balloon can sound just like a .22.
We study those assassinations, along with the murders of John Lennon, Indira Gandhi, Benigno Aquino, and Anwar Sadat, to name a few. But it was the attempt on Ronald Reagan that significantly changed the way we protect the president.
On March 30, 1981, the seventy-year-old president had been in office for just seventy days. After he spoke to a labor union group at the Hilton Hotel on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington, agents escorted him out through the special "presidents only" door at the side of the main door and onto the street. A rope line had been set up between that private entrance and the hotel entrance to keep reporters back. But a twenty-five-year-old man named JohnHinckley had made his way into the press group and had a .22-caliber revolver in his pocket. Just as the president got to the limousine and raised his left arm to wave at the reporters fifteen feet away, Hinckley squeezed off five shots.
One bullet hit press secretary James Brady in the forehead. Another hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. A third hit agent Tim McCarthy in the chest as he turned and stood up straight to put himself in front of the president. Whether Tim had time to decide that he would sacrifice himself for the president, I don't know, but he was where he was supposed to be, doing what he was trained to do--act instinctively. It all happened so fast that it's hard to imagine that Tim, or anyone else, had time to think. Mayhem had broken out in under two seconds.
The back doors on that particular presidential limousine opened to the rear, which is the opposite of a regular vehicle. The president reached out to catch himself, and at precisely that moment a bullet ricocheted through the opening between the door and the structure of the car. It was a totally freakish shot, because the president was actually behind the armored door. As Hinckley was firing, Jerry Parr, the agent in charge of PPD, and Ray Shaddick, who was the shift supervisor, shoved the president into the car. He landed heavily on the transmission riser in the middle of the floor of the limousine just as Parr piled on top of him and Ray slammed the door shut. The car sped off for the White House.
In the wake of the attempt, there was much publicity about how Hinckley had become obsessed with actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. To impress her, he decided to mimic the film's main character--played by Robert De Niro--who plots to kill a presidential candidate. It was later disclosed that, in October 1980, Hinckley had been arrested at Nashville airport with three handguns in his luggage on the same day that President Jimmy Carter was in town. More than twenty years after his attempted murder of the president, it has been revealed that Hinckley is stillobsessed with Foster and, for a while, exchanged correspondence with serial killer Ted Bundy. To the chagrin of the Secret Service, Hinckley has now been allowed out of his mental institution on a day-release program. I am not alone in believing that Hinckley only escaped life in prison on a technicality--his insanity plea--and am not pleased that he's out there somewhere, walking the streets, for several hours at a stretch.
Secret Service agents on the scene, and Jerry Parr in particular, used their training to save the president's life. In the limousine Jerry started running his hands around the president's chest, back, and shoulders feeling for blood. When he didn't find any, his first thought was that, luckily, the president had escaped serious injury. That's when deep-red, frothy blood started flowing out of the president's mouth. Jerry yelled to the driver to go to George Washington University Hospital, because from his training, Jerry knew blood that color indicated a lung injury.
The motorcade instantly diverted. The hospital was alerted by radio that the president was on his way, and the limousine arrived within a couple of minutes. It was hectic and traumatic, but everything worked precisely the way it was supposed to, exactly the way we had trained to make it work. Especially Jerry Parr's reaction. Had he not understood the significance of the blood, he would not have realized the extent of the president's injuries, and Ronald Reagan surely would have died.
STANDING NEXT TO HISTORY. Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Petro. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.