A lot of things have made me cringe during this election year, but one misconception that tends to make me shake my head in disbelief is that a President or Presidential candidate is surrounded by a group of Secret Service agents who support a particular platform and remove protestors from events. This simply is not the case and for good reasons. In this post, I will attempt to dispel a few myths and explain why those who bravely serve in the United States Secret Service do not allow personal beliefs to factor into the way the job is performed.
What President did you report to?
I’ve been asked that question multiple times by people who mean well enough but do not understand how the United States Secret Service functions. I served in the agency from 2000 to the end of 2006 and at no time did I report to any President, Vice President, candidate, or any other individual who was designated to receive Secret Service protection (a protectee). I started my career during the Clinton administration and finished it during the administration of George W. Bush. During that span, I helped to protect individuals associated with both of those administrations as well as countless visiting foreign heads of state. My colleagues and I approached the job in the same manner regardless if the protectee was a Republican, a Democrat, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the President of Micronesia.
Agents report through the Secret Service’s chain of command and not to any politician. This is logical since elected politicians come and go, but the agency is a permanent fixture. Agents are trained to follow procedures that ensure the rights of individuals are respected while threats are addressed using the minimum amount of force. For agents to take orders from protectees who may not be familiar with specific policies, use of force regulations, and federal statutes, would be risky for all involved. Not only would it be unfair to expect a protectee to understand the intricacies of protective operations, but visiting heads of state could not possibly be expected to be familiar with laws in the United States. Thus, agents do not work for, or report to, anybody they are assigned to protect.
Why did the USSS remove that protestor?
First of all, please note the proper abbreviation for the agency is USSS, not SS. The abbreviation “SS” has a negative connotation to it from the days of Nazi Germany and there are already enough people out there who misunderstand the role of the USSS. Let’s not make things any tougher for the agency.
As for why the USSS removed a protestor: The chances are they did not. Agents do not remove protestors unless they potentially pose a physical threat to the protectee. Time and time again, we have seen news clips of protestors being removed from events and sometimes those removing the individuals are wearing suits and earpieces. Usually, those individuals are event or campaign staff members who have asked the individual to leave and then removed the person for trespassing once the protestor failed to depart. Just as if you hosted a party in a large banquet room for which you paid and decided you wanted somebody removed, political committees and event hosts can do the same thing. Most of the time, the protestor is being removed for violating some local statute such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace. You may disagree in the legality of this process, but I am only pointing out that the Secret Service does not get involved in these matters as the main focus of the agents is, and should be, the welfare of the protectee.
How could you possibly protect someone who believes ________?
Can you imagine the nightmare that would ensue if Secret Service agents started deciding what viewpoints warranted protection? It would be similar to having individual police officers decide they are not going to enforce any laws with which they disagree. The result would be pure chaos.
Look. Here is the bottom line. The Secret Service is in the business of protecting lives, not assessing a value to those lives. Perhaps you think some lives are not worth protecting and that is your prerogative. However, every successful assassination makes a future assassination seem more feasible in someone’s mind. If we cannot protect world leaders in the United States, a place where we place a great deal of emphasis on freedom of expression, then it becomes open season on leaders everywhere. Aside from all this, when an attack occurs, agents react according to their training. The practiced reactions become reflexes and when decisive action is needed the last thing an agent is thinking about is the protectee’s stance on abortion. How reflexive are these reactions? Allow me to give a real life example.
A few years ago, I was with a protectee at a baseball game which was in a rain delay. A storm with strong wind gusts had forced the spectators into the crowded concourse area and the protectee decided to walk around the concrete walkways. Suddenly, a deafening “bang” rang out from behind us. Without any hesitation, I draped myself over the back of the protectee and began moving her toward the motorcade.
Of course, it took me a few seconds to remember I had not been an agent for quite a while and the “protectee” was actually my wife who was wondering why she was being forcibly abducted by her own spouse. But, it was a learning experience for me. I discovered that the reactions that had been engrained in me were still present and that a portable concession stand toppling over onto concrete sounds a lot like a gunshot. Seriously. The similarity is uncanny.
My point is that agents react according to the hundreds of hours they have spent training to ward off an attack. To train people to step into the line of fire instead of jumping behind cover is incredibly difficult and once the training is instilled in an individual, it does not simply fade away (as many Pittsburgh Pirates fans now realize after watching me accost my wife).
So this election year, please remember that not everything is political. Although Secret Service agents are thoughtful individuals who certainly have their own political viewpoints, those opinions vanish when it is time to go to work. The apolitical nature of the job is actually refreshing when you stop to think about it.
Imagine what it would be like if more people focused on doing their jobs and upholding their oaths regardless of personal ideology. Not only would we be incredibly efficient, but we would all be considerably safer from rouge concession stands.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology