Secrets of the Secret Service

The History and Uncertain Future of the U.S. Secret Service


By Gary J. Byrne

With Grant M. Schmidt

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From the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller CRISIS OF CHARACTER comes an explosive new exposé of the Secret Service.

The United States Secret Service is tasked with protecting our Presidents, their families, and the complex in which they live and work. Given this important mission, world stability rests upon the shoulders of its agents.

In his new book, former Secret Service officer Gary Byrne takes readers behind the scenes to understand the agency’s history and today’s security failings that he believes put Americans at risk

The American public knows the stories of Secret Service heroism, but they don’t know about the hidden legacy of problems that have plagued the agency ever since its creation.

Gary Byrne says that decades of catastrophic public failures, near misses, and bureaucratic and cultural rot threaten to erode this critical organization from the inside out.

Today, as it works to protect President Trump, the Secret Service stands at a crossroads, and the time needed to choose the right course is running out. Agents and officers are leaving the Secret Service in droves, or they’re being overworked to the point where they lose focus on the job. Management makes decisions based on politics, not the welfare of their employees.

Byrne believes that this means danger for the men and women of the Secret Service, danger for the President they protect, and danger for the nation. In this book, he shares what he has witnessed and learned about the Secret Service with the hope that the problems of this most important agency can be fixed before it’s too late.


This book was written with pride, albeit with a heavy heart. It is my hope that through this book, things can be made right, but, as Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”



Worthy of Trust and Confidence


Every Secret Service story begins with “All seemed quiet.” The events of March 4, 2015, were no different, except that three years later the Washington Post found out about what had transpired. Then came the ensuing cover-up and media storm.

All did seem quiet at 10:25 p.m. for the Uniformed Division officers standing their posts outside the White House. No matter how many years they had on the job, it still took a bit of discipline not to turn and breathe in the incredible sight of the White House, all lit up at night. The air was breezy and cool. And although every Secret Service story begins the same way, the Uniformed Division’s unofficial motto always rang true: “There’s always something going on at the White House.”

Life as a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer would have been a dream job if not for the nightmare the Secret Service bureaucrats had made it. The trouble was staying awake and alert and not having a complete mental breakdown, heart attack, or really ugly divorce. There were officers who couldn’t avoid all three happening at once, and then there were the suicides. Seven days of twelve-hour shifts, plus management threatening punishment for taking scheduled days off, can have that impact. But some Secret Service officers made hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime. Though management seemed to be in denial about the new practice, the plan of so many new recruits was to survive, serve, make a mountain of cash, and then quit after just two or five years of service. Their spouses had to agree to the plan, and they were immune to the immensely powerful lure that had enthralled the old-timers who had stayed on. This, after all, was the White House, the most recognizable building around the globe, and it was there that its most powerful leaders shaped the world.

This Uniformed Division officer manning one of the security gates around the White House, scanned, watched, and waited. As an owl snaps to at the sight of its prey, he saw a woman park her sedan in the no-parking zone, as dozens of lost tourists did each day. Enforcing the no-parking zone usually meant giving directions, but the zone was still an integral puzzle piece in detecting attacks launched at the White House.

She leapt out of the car.

“Ma’am, you can’t park here,” the officer called out.

“I have something for you,” she said, full of anger.

That, too, wasn’t unusual. People often naively tried to deliver letters or gifts to the White House.

“I have something for you. It’s a book,” she said, excited.

“Ma’am, we can’t take packages. We can’t—we can’t do this. You have to mail it.” That’s when she said the magic words.

“Actually, it’s a fucking bomb!” she yelled.

That’s when all the routineness left. This wasn’t a normal night; it was one of those nights.

“Back up! Back up!” the officer yelled at her, clutching his firearm as she dropped the package onto the sidewalk, jumped back into her car, and sped off. The officer radioed in her vehicle description. He couldn’t make out the license plate, as his brain was flooded with training videos that demonstrated the explosive power a book-sized bomb could have.

Meanwhile, across town, two hotshot Secret Service agents, types who had “been there and seen it all,” had been out celebrating the retirement of a colleague. They figured it was about time to leave the party.

The two men prided themselves on being “the elite of the elite.” The most powerful office of the world, held at the time by President Barack Obama, was protected by them—and that made them the “the best of the best.”

They had protected President Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Vast amounts of trust were placed in their hands. And tonight they were drunk in their take-home government car, heading home from a retirement party.

Life in the Secret Service was good. Well, not for everyone. It was good only for the old boys’ club, the high-up agents, the “made men” of the Secret Service, like those two. One was from the Presidential Protection Division (PPD), and the president’s life rested in his hands each and every day. The other was the head of the Secret Service Washington Field Office. Men like them set the tone and culture of much of the Secret Service.

The Secret Service couldn’t pay them any more due to congressional pay restrictions, but the agency found ways to up the ante and keep the agents’ whistles wet, such as take-home cars and prestige. The prestige was the best.

The prestige led them, despite being drunk in a government vehicle, to approach the White House as though they owned the place. But they could tell that something was off. It was quiet; too quiet. They cursed their fellow Secret Service men, the Uniformed Division officers. They thought to themselves that they must have abdicated their post. The entry gate was wide open. There were police tape and vehicle barricades set up.

Where the hell were the Uniformed Division officers?

No matter, they thought, and they pushed slowly through the barricades, picking up a bit of speed. That’s when Uniformed Division officers sprinted to them yelling something but the agents didn’t care. Near them was a Secret Service bomb tech all suited up, dressed like something out of The Hurt Locker.

Someone yelled, “You’re next to a bomb!”

The agents stumbled out drunk and immediately doubled down berating the officers. Meanwhile, the bomb was still considered active. But calling out those top agents, even to keep them safe, came at a price. That’s when the intimidation and cover-up began. The agents demanded that the officers on the scene not breathalyze them and that they keep the incident quiet. It almost worked—but the director caught wind of it from an internal agency message board five days later.

Despite the multiple Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security investigations, the congressional investigations, and more, the two agents, months later, were able to retire with full benefits—not so much as a parking ticket. Some would try to minimize the incident as anecdotal, that they were just two knuckleheads—but those “knuckleheads” were two of the highest-ranking members of the Secret Service. The example they set filtered downward. And soon after, as word spread far and wide throughout the ranks of the Secret Service, all of the new recruits learned what the old-timers knew: nothing in the Secret Service changes, and you never cross the made men of the Secret Service. The officers who had run up to the agents’ car had found that out the hard way—even if they had been trying to save their lives. The Department of Homeland Security and congressional investigations outed a culture that makes the lives of whistle-blowers miserable, shields those who lie to investigators and Congress, and carries on protecting the president as if this were normal behavior.

None of that mattered at the top ranks of the Secret Service, because nothing ever happened to them. They were elite, after all, and the prestige kept them safe.

Strong-arming, intimidation, and covering up from the top down—those were not unusual procedures for the Secret Service. What was unusual was that the American public would eventually find out about the incident and the congressional investigation that followed and failed to instill change. But there have been many such incidents of incompetence followed by cover-ups in the Secret Service, and this goes back decades—more than a century, to the very beginnings of presidential protection in the United States. The patterns keep repeating, and the lessons have not been learned. If we don’t break this cycle soon, tragedy is going to strike once again.

This is a book that can save the president’s life.

For more than 116 years the brave and loyal men and women of the United States Secret Service (USSS) have put their lives on the line, day in and day out, to protect our nation’s leaders. Some of their missions are well known—the officer who gave his life and took his final shot to protect President Harry Truman when two armed gunmen sought to murder him outside the White House in 1950; the agent who jumped into the line of fire when another assassin very nearly took the life of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But today we must accept a difficult truth: the Secret Service isn’t failing—it has failed. That’s not hyperbolic or alarmist. The frontline men and women of the modern Secret Service not only face threats that multiply by the day, but they have to deal with vindictive mismanagement, political correctness, and a deep-seeded old boys’ network that is more interested in empire building than protecting our presidents. In a downward spiral that has lasted decades, the inner leadership circle refuses to see the relationship between the wellness of the agency’s employees and the service’s mission performance. Behind the agency’s “tacti-cool” veneer, it has come to represent everything wrong with big government. Fortunately, the cure for the Secret Service might just be the cure for what has plagued our far out of control, underperforming, over-budget government.

Right now the security of our presidents is a matter of alignment: the failed Secret Service is hoping that its glaring gaps won’t align with the plans of an opportunistic assassin who is willing to take the chance of his or her own success and the agency’s failure—which is exactly what occurred before each assassination of past US presidents. With each Secret Service scandal that goes unpunished and unsolved, it is clear that the gaps are getting worse. The Secret Service’s malfeasance is encouraging more attacks because attackers see increasing chances for success.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and the Secret Service is repeating a tired and destructive pattern.

President Donald Trump will be lucky to survive his presidency, just as it was only luck and coincidence that so often saved President Obama’s life. Many of those incidents and the state of the agency were kept secret from President Obama, and they are surely being kept from President Trump.

Should President Trump survive under the Secret Service’s plan of theatrics, hope, and chance, the next president will be at risk. This will continue until we change, either by choice or by catastrophe. Up until now it’s been difficult for the public to imagine, but the president, Congress, and the public need to know what has happened and what is to come.

This book will share the secrets of the Secret Service with the American people—untold stories of remarkable heroism and shocking misconduct. It will provide an inside view into Secret Service exploits, some well known and some swept under the rug. But it also describes the agency’s leadership style, culture, and strategic thinking that have lead to the scandals and failure of today. Many of these secrets have even been kept from the Secret Service—until now.

As much as I wish I could, there is not enough room in this book to address in depth the war on counterfeiting, the agency’s founding mission, and the other areas the Secret Service has expanded into. The general public knows little about how the Secret Service is involved in many areas, but the results are consistent: it is failing. The Secret Service is responsible for and is failing at combating the state-sponsored efforts of Iran and North Korea and criminal enterprises in countries such as Nigeria that victimize individual Americans and our economy, while also bankrolling our enemies in the War on Terror. It cannot operate in Iran or North Korea and has not found any creative ways to stem the tide of their counterfeiting. In Nigeria, the government the USSS is supposed to be helping fight counterfeiters and other criminals was found to be complicit in some of the crimes. Still, the Secret Service is so stagnant that it cannot figure out new and innovative ways to fulfill those missions.

Even more newly developed Secret Service missions are already failing. Most of them stemmed from large power grabs in the 1990s and after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in a desperate attempt to compete against the FBI. Though it may seem difficult to believe, one serious abdication is school shootings. The agency has long argued that the dual missions of executive protection and fighting counterfeiting aid each other. Unfortunately, it is failing across the board as it prioritizes presidential protection—and still comes up far short.

Let’s be clear: many of the agents and officers who surround and protect President Trump are the most loyal and dedicated men and women ever to serve their country. For me, it was the biggest honor to serve for twelve years as a Secret Service officer and be shoulder to shoulder with those patriots. Every day, the Secret Service seeks to fulfill its core mission to protect the president.

But the “secret” side of the Secret Service, the internal culture that the public doesn’t see, has been rotting from the inside out and is working against the dedicated patriots who want only to see the mission succeed. That internal rot has prioritized the agency’s “brand” over our president. As a former insider, I feel compelled by my oath to let the public know; it is vital that they be informed. Failure in presidential protection significantly impacts us all.

Unlike any DC or New York pundit giving you a trickle-down version rife with outsider commentary, in this book you will read about the true past, present, and future of the Secret Service, directly from frontline sources. I detail how real security works, how it fails, and how politicized corruption has infected every mission of the agency.

In Crisis of Character, I told the story of what it was like to be one of the first Secret Service employees to be subjected to and subpoenaed in a criminal investigation of a sitting president. It was miserable to live through and at first to write about. When I regained my First Amendment rights after retiring from federal law enforcement, I wrote my story. With each chapter written, I felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted off me. Keeping silent was a far greater burden on my soul than I had ever realized. When Hillary Clinton’s campaign surrogates and smear machine failed in their attempts to blackball me, I was comforted. When they chose their brand over their truth, they fell into the trap of two simple lessons: history never ceases to be relevant, and secrets are like ticking time bombs.

But the Secret Service’s problems didn’t begin with the Clintons and surely didn’t end with them either. Of the twenty-five presidents protected by the Secret Service, the problems involved in protecting Bill Clinton were not unique. Each officer and agent charged with protecting our president, and the agency’s leaders up to the highest level, know the Secret Service motto: “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” But they must also ask themselves, of whom are they “worthy of trust and confidence”? During the Clinton years, the agency’s inner circle landed on a shocking answer: to itself. From then on, the agency has been turned against itself.

Like so many of those who joined the Secret Service, I joined because I wanted to see the Secret Service win—and winning meant enabling the president to live and lead without fear. Keeping the president safe keeps the country together. Can you imagine the grief, the anger, and the fallout if any future president—or any member of the first family or a foreign dignitary—were assassinated?

It seems impossible, even unthinkable, but four US presidents have been murdered. Four presidential candidates have been shot: two killed, one paralyzed. Especially in recent years, there have been far too many “near misses” in which the deciding factor between a living protectee and another assassination was luck. Since 1951, when the Secret Service was officially tasked with permanent presidential protection, the agency has had a 91.7 percent success rate, but it drops down to less than 66.7 percent when also considering the nearly catastrophic failures on the attempts of Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush in which the deciding factor was largely luck. That’s unacceptable.

After each near miss, the Secret Service puts on a “shake-up,” a big show in which it promises the nation that it really is the “elite” protection force it claims to be. “You can trust us,” its spokespeople say. “The president is safe in our hands.”

But can we believe it? Through all the failures, can we trust it this time?

The Secret Service will say whatever it needs to to achieve its goals—but so will I. Answer the question yourself: If the Secret Service were focused on its main priority, would it have allowed so many serious breaches in just the last few years?

In 2011, a man fired several shots from a rifle at the White House, but responding officers were told to “stand down” and that their eyes and ears had deceived them; the shooter even initially got away.

In 2012, more than a dozen agents and their management planned to use President Obama’s trip to Colombia to party and hire prostitutes. They went ahead with their plan and nearly got arrested for refusing to pay the prostitutes—and in the investigation that followed, the director even misled and deceived Congress.

In 2014, advance agents screened everyone at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ahead of a visit by President Obama—everyone, that is, except the private armed security guards. A guard with a criminal history managed to get onto an elevator with the president—he simply walked past all of the Secret Service’s security. He caught the Secret Service’s attention only when he started snapping pictures inches away from the president’s face. Afterward, the director misled, deceived, and failed to inform Congress and the president, who had to find out about the breach from the news media. Once again, the only thing that protected the president that day was hope and that the unscreened man, who was armed with a handgun, wanted merely to snap a picture and not to shoot the president. If he had wanted to shoot Obama, the Secret Service would have been responsible.

Then there’s the 2015 incident in which two intoxicated agents—one of whom was part of the president’s protective detail—drove drunk in a government car into an active bomb investigation at the White House. The agents intimidated those on duty to not breathalyze or arrest them, to falsify reports, and even to withhold the incident from the director, who found out about the incident through an internal message board five days later. But the cover-up afterward really took the cake!

We are led to believe that each incident is isolated and not indicative of the rest of the Secret Service. We can judge the US Secret Service only by the standards it sets for itself. Each recent director has testified, “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” and “The bad guys only have to be right once, while we have to be right one hundred percent of the time.” Then there’s the official motto, emblazoned on the back of every Secret Service commission book: “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.”

So what’s the truth? Is the Secret Service elite? Is its primary enemy an assassin, or is it transparency and change?

The 2016 “Best Places to Work In the Federal Government” report, which was created by the Partnership for Public Service on the basis of employee responses, named the Secret Service as the worst place to work. Out of 305 federal agencies, the Secret Service came in dead last. Even Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees had better morale and more confidence in their agency than Secret Service employees did.

Just to give you an idea of how bad morale is and how the old adage “The beating will continue until morale improves” plays out within the Secret Service, after the 2016 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings came out, an officer bought a cake and took it into the break room for the other Uniformed Division officers to share. The icing said, “Congrats on making 305 out of 305.” The officer who had bought the cake was given two days off, unpaid, as punishment for insubordination. Compare that to the two high-ranking agents who received no punishment after driving drunk, armed, in a government car into an active bomb investigation at the White House, intimidated officers to falsify reports, and more.

The rankings were based on employees’ responses to three simple prompts: “I recommend my organization as a good place to work”; “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?”; and “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?”

The 305 participating agencies averaged 59.4 points out of 100, but the Secret Service scored a mere 32.8. The numbers have been going down since 2011. This is especially incredible considering that the most downtrodden agents, officers, and technicians continue to leave in droves, which means that each year the most disgruntled are no longer participating in the surveys. The House Oversight Committee has called this an “exodus.” How long can it go on?

Meanwhile, the agency seems to have as a good a handle on its finances as it does on its employees. In 2017, the director of the Secret Service surprised Congress by reporting that he was out of money and hadn’t seen it coming—as the agency has done numerous times in the past. The current director, Randolph Alles, told the press, “The Secret Service estimates that roughly 1,100 employees will work overtime hours in excess of statutory pay caps during calendar year 2017. To remedy this ongoing and serious problem, the agency has worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security, the Administration, and the Congress over the past several months to find a legislative solution.”

Is it a legislative solution that’s needed, or maybe one brought about by changing the agency’s internal culture?

The legislative branch has certainly expressed its concern about the direction the Secret Service is going in. The 2015 bipartisan House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report entitled “United States Secret Service: An Agency in Crisis” said this about the agency’s ballooning $2.8 billion budget: “One of the major problems with USSS’s current budget system is that there is no system.… In fact, the Panel [in meetings with the director] could not even determine who at USSS should be responsible for answering budgetary questions.” In other words, the agency in charge of fighting counterfeiters, which has made history by “following the money,” has no clue how it spends its own? So is the problem “legislative,” purely in the hands of Congress not to be stingy, or is the problem the Secret Service leadership ?

A panel of independent experts organized by the Department of Homeland Security had something to say about that. The United States Secret Service Protective Mission Panel (USSS-PMP) released its findings in 2014. They wrote, “Of the many concerns the Panel encountered, the question of leadership is, in our view, the most important. The Panel found an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability.… We heard a common desire: More resources would help, but what we really need is leadership.”

According to that same report, “The Panel found that, due in large part to limitations on personnel, the Service’s training regimen has diminished far below acceptable levels. The Presidential Protective Division’s (PPD) so-called ‘Fourth Shift’ had once ensured that for two weeks out of every eight, the President’s detail was maintaining its strength, practicing, and getting better. But Secret Service reports show that in FY 2013, apart from firearms re-qualifications and basic career development technical requirements, the average special agent received only forty-two hours of training.”

That’s an abysmal forty-two hours of training a year for the people who protect the president of the United States! The supposedly “elite” Secret Service agents who protect the most powerful man in the world train for less than three leisurely weekends. The report went on to note that “In FY 2013, Service data shows that the [Secret Service] Uniformed Division as a whole received 576 hours of training, or about 25 minutes for each of over 1,300 Uniformed Division officers.”

This means that a private citizen in Washington, DC, who has a concealed-carry handgun permit has more annual firearms training than a Secret Service officer or PPD agent. By law, to receive a concealed-carry handgun permit and requalify every two years, a private citizen must prove that he or she has received at least sixteen hours of firearms training, including two hours of range time. It should frighten every American that a concealed-carry permit holder in our nation’s capital has more annual firearms training than the average officer or PPD agent employed by the Secret Service!

The culture has deteriorated so much that agents’ reports, such as requalifications and performance evaluations for physical training and tactical proficiency with a firearm, are “self-reported.” As one agent reported to Ronald Kessler, “Standards are so lax that agents are actually handed blank evaluations for possible promotions and fitness ratings and asked to fill them in themselves!” During my time in the Secret Service as a firearms instructor, I saw this firsthand. Today the practice is far more rampant.

That’s not all that’s swept aside by “self-reporting.” According to the 2015 House Oversight Committee report, “USSS senior supervisors believed fellow senior supervisors would self-report their own misconduct,” and therefore various types of ‘misconduct’ such as drinking, hiring prostitutes, and driving a government car drunk over an active bomb investigation at the White House, were not reported because other supervisors expected that the criminal behavior would be ‘self-reported.’”

What happens if an upstanding agent or officer has finally had enough and decides such incidents shouldn’t be swept under the rug? The same report found that “USSS utilized non-disclosure agreements [for its employees] that do not comply with whistle-blower protections.” In layman’s terms, this means that the Secret Service coerced its employees to sign nondisclosure agreements that were against the law in an effort to shield the agency from bad PR and transparency even to Congress! According to a Department of Homeland Security report, less than half of employees felt they could report to Congress without unlawful retaliation from the agency.

So the answer is clear: the Secret Service cares more about protecting itself from transparency and change than about stopping assassins.


On Sale
Jan 2, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Center Street

Gary J. Byrne

About the Author

GARY J. BYRNE served in federal law enforcement for nearly thirty years, in the U.S. Air Force Security Police, the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service, and most recently as a Federal Air Marshal. In his first book, #1 New York Times bestseller CRISIS OF CHARACTER, he shared his experiences as the first Secret Service employee compelled to testify in a criminal case against a sitting U.S. president.

GRANT M. SCHMIDT, a Temple University graduate, is an entrepreneur and writer in the Philadelphia area.

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