Behind the Scenes With a ‘Site Agent’: The Secret Service’s Hardest Job
The agent tasked with securing the Atlanta site where an armed civilian rode an elevator with Obama has one of the toughest jobs in the agency. What goes into protecting the president.
There’s no wiggle room in Secret Service standard operation procedures for presidential visits: The security guard who pushed elevator buttons for President Obama and his entourage at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on September 16 should not have been allowed to carry a gun that day.
The more the Secret Service investigates, the less of a threat the man, who has not been identified publicly, appears to be. He is an 11-year veteran of the CDC’s primary contract guard force, which must meet federal standards to provide security at high-profile government sites. Despite reports to the contrary, he has never been convicted of a felony, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. His service as a guard had earned him the right to be the VIP greeter that day. And apparently, when he was pulling his camera out to take a picture with the president, he just wanted to take a picture of the president.
To the agents of the Presidential Protective Detail who jacked him up and questioned him, the guard, wearing a coat and slacks, was concealing a weapon he should not have been carrying, period. To the agent responsible for securing the site that day, however, the risks of not fully following guidelines for pre-screening contract security officers and making sure they don’t show up with their weapons at presidential events may have seemed negligible. The job requires a mind for logistics, flexibility, and risk control.
Site agents and shift agents have the hardest jobs in the Secret Service. At presidential trip sites, the site agent rules the roost. He or she is the alpha and the omega of that universe. The site agent’s main job is to make sure that the shift agents—those who surrounded and accompany the president—can do their jobs without being distracted, surprised, or unduly worried.
There is a healthy tension between shift agents and site agents. The shift agents don’t want the security plan to change, ever. Deviations make them nervous. Site agents, many of them former and future shift agents, know that everything changes at the last minute.
In 2012, as I walked out of an 85,000-seat venue where agents were preparing for a presidential visit, I ran into an assistant shift leader on the PPD. She was there for a walkthrough. “My job,” she told me, “is to get in and get out. His job,” she said, pointing at the agency veteran who had spent more two months working on this one assignment, “is to put it all together.”
Later that year, with a handler from the Secret Service making sure I behaved myself, I shadowed site agents overseeing presidential debates. A close look at how they put those events together shows why even the tiniest details matter, and why small mistakes or cut corners can lead to potential catastrophes.
On October 3, I found myself in Denver, Colorado, where my escort was Bobby O’Donnell, a PPD veteran and well-regarded detail leader for visiting world leaders. O’Donnell was the site agent who supervised the sites and the site agents responsible for securing all four official campaign debates. This was his watch.
O’Donnell was in his mid-40s. Like many agents of his generation, he had shaved his head, giving him a fierce, don’t-fuck-with-me look, which didn’t disappear much when he smiled. When I met him, on the eve of the first debate, he was dressed in a natty gray suit and was the picture of serenity. As we walked through the venue, campaign staffers and facility workers greeted him warmly. His question to them was always: “Do you have everything you need?”
O’Donnell was built like a block. But like agents I’ve known whose jobs require them to work with other agencies and municipalities, he wore his Secret Service mien lightly and his community advocate persona on his sleeve. He stopped to take a picture of a Budweiser installation on the grounds of the debate hall and later took a snapshot with his cellphone camera of the built-up debate podium, all the while distributing official CPD challenge coins, one of which was flipped to determine everything from the order that the candidates would arrive to the location of the office space they would use.
O’Donnell was nervous about something but didn’t show it: That night, the Technical Security Division of the Secret Service wanted to begin its sweep of the venue by 6 p.m. MDT. The timing would allow them to have a secure site by 4 a.m. MDT, or an hour before the network morning shows went on the air in the East. The network camera positions were inside the secure zone, so the sweep had to be finished at least an hour before those cameras had to be hot.
But the debate staff had told O’Donnell earlier in the day that they wouldn’t be finished setting up until 10, leaving only six hours for what would be a complicated, methodical, inch-by-inch examination of a huge complex. O’Donnell asked them to compromise: Would 8 p.m. work? No. But then O’Donnell played negotiator. Could they have half the site by 7 and the rest by 10? That would work. O’Donnell gave that news two thumbs up and let the TSD know it could begin its sweep at 7.
The Magness Arena at the University of Denver was ideal as a debate site in many ways. It was large enough for two campaigns and retinues, a few thousand guests, and several thousand members of the media. It was accessible: The arena is less than 100 yards from Denver’s major intra-state highway, I-25. But when agents from the Denver Field Office began to draw up the security plan for the site, they worried that the highway was a little too close. Anytime 50 million people tune into a television broadcast of something secured by the Secret Service, perimeters are going to be expanded and extra measures taken, even if the event itself isn’t terribly complicated to execute. A month or so before the debate, members of the Service’s Technical Security Division inspected the building’s foundation and construction, and found it to be less sturdy than it seemed. They worried about the arena’s ability to withstand the force generated by a truck bomb 100 yards away. That was the distance from the arena to the interstate, which, in theory, could remain open during the debate. So the Service notified the Colorado State Police that it would probably want to close a portion of the highway for the time the candidates would be onsite.
That created a political problem for the city of Denver and for the governor. Denver residents had memories of the mass traffic chaos of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and once again, a major road would be closed during the middle of rush hour on a weekday. The Secret Service insisted; the city balked. Eventually, the Service provided Denver’s mayor with a classified briefing about its concerns. The city relented, but the mayor asked the Secret Service to formally request the closure in a letter that could be made public. “We took the heat, which we knew we would, and that was fine,” Robert Bruce, the special agent in charge of the Denver Field Office, told me. A letter was dutifully provided. And as a reciprocal gesture, Gov. John Hickenlooper, the former mayor of Denver, later issued a statement acknowledging the security necessity of the road closure.
The Denver debate went off without a hitch—except for President Obama, who did poorly, as I recall.
Two weeks later, I flew to New York, drove to Long Island, and during the second presidential debate, at Hofstra University, I watched the Secret Service execute its security plan in real time from the vantage point of the event security room.
7:48 p.m.: Mitt Romney’s motorcade is about to leave the local Marriott hotel en route to the debate site. “Secret Service, imminent departure, Romney,” the agent manning the radio barks out to a room full of police officers and security officers. This mini command center is wedged into a conference room about 200 feet from the debate hall. Local police jurisdictions coordinate traffic closures from here and watch protests; the fire marshal is watching a baseball game in one corner of the room; the Department of Homeland Security is on scene; and a staff member from the White House Communications Agency comes in and out and checks on communications. In a room just down the hall, Dr. Maurizio Miglietta, a noted New York trauma surgeon, supervises a staff of doctors, nurses, and techs, all volunteering. He has converted the room into an operating suite. “We can do anything here from open heart surgery to limb amputations,” he says. “Mags,” as he known to the agents, is always on call for major Secret Service events in the New York area, and tonight, his make-shift trauma center would be ground zero if anyone, including Obama and Romney, needed acute medical care.
7:50 p.m.: Over the radio frequency, we hear: “Romney moving to cars.” The agent in the security room repeats this message to those at the debate site, listening on the “Mike” radio frequency. “All poststanders on Mike, Javelin departing.”
7:51 p.m.: The traffic coordinator for the New York State Police confirms that the entire route from the Marriott is shut down and secure. This information is relayed to all the agents via the security room.
7:54 p.m.: Romney’s detail leader radios the agent at the secure arrival site. He wants an advance report. “Site is clear, zero press, zero greeters, zero public,” the agent says. For the remainder of the motorcade, there is no radio traffic. Silence is key; agents keep the channel clear for emergencies. In fact, an agent is manning the follow-up calls into the security room to make sure that the site is aware of the movement.
7:56 p.m.: “Security room from 3-2-9, Javelin coming to my post.” An agent on the outer perimeter radios in that the motorcade is in sight.
Romney arrives safely and goes to his holding room. At that moment, a New York State Police lieutenant who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall marches up to the agents at the command post. Gov. Mario Cuomo’s motorcade intends to arrive at the site just 15 minutes before the debate begins, but his advance guy on the outer perimeter and a Secret Service agent are having an argument. By that point, Obama will be on site, and the site will be “frozen”—a “POTUS freeze,” meaning that no one comes in, not even the governor. The site’s integrity is paramount at that point. The officer asks the agents to make an exception. “The site will be frozen. There’s nothing we can do,” the site agent replies, rather firmly.
But the agents will see what they can do. They know that they will have to let the governor in and that they will make an accommodation, because they usually do, especially for VVIPs who think they can flout their guidelines. (Cuomo was asked to show up an hour early, but he evidently did not want to linger at the debate site.) They have to manage risk.
8:10 p.m.: The Oscar channel, the sacred space of the PPD, is silent. The detail leader has decided to telephone the security room and disclose that Obama has departed. The agent shouts out to the police officers: “POTUS is on the way.”
8:13 p.m.: There is traffic on Oscar. “Halfback, Command Post, Security Room, Renegade, Arrive.” The agent in the shotgun position in Halfback, the nickname for the president’s follow-up car, radios that the president has arrived at the debate site. The agent in charge of Obama’s detail will subsequently radio every movement back to the security room and to Halfback. “Moving to the hold.” “Going up the stairs.” “In the hold.” Obama’s counter-assault team radios in: They have positioned to a pre-planned site inside the debate hall.
8:22 p.m.: Gov. Cuomo arrives. As predicted, his two-car motorcade has been blocked from entering. The State Police lieutenant is back and asking for that exception, which the agent decides to grant. He picks up the radio. “Post 3-2-9, from security room, go ahead and let the governor come in. One marked car. Two-vehicle motorcade. He has been swept,” he says. The governor’s security guy nods his thank you.
10:45 p.m.: After the debate, Obama lingers on stage for 15 minutes. Mitt and Ann Romney bolt back to their holding room. Obama has done well; Romney has not. The president wants to stay; the challenger wants to go back to his hotel. Quickly. But security protocol is keeping him in his holding room. Whenever the president is onsite, he leaves first. It becomes clear that Romney is not happy with this. Several times, his detail leader radios the Romney follow-up car, asking if the Romney motorcade can be positioned in the covered vehicle tent to allow for a quick departure. But the president’s detail won’t allow this. Minutes tick by.
Romney’s detail leader asks the agent in Romney’s motorcade: “Where do things stand? When can we get out of here?” Just waiting for POTUS, is the reply. But Obama is still on stage. And then he is “moving in the direction of the hold.” But then—no—he is “going back to shake some hands.”
The site agent wants to solve this problem before it gets any worse. He goes down to the secure motorcade staging area, looking for a solution.
After getting assurances that Obama, who is now (or so everyone is informed on the radio) holding an impromptu post-debate meet-and-greet in his holding room, isn’t going to leave for a while, he orders that Romney’s motorcade be staged in a hurry. A PPD agent tells his counterpart that Romney has about 15 minutes.
The follow-up radios in: “We’re good to go here. Staff is in the vans. We’re ready.”
Romney’s detail leader: “Thanks. We’ll be pulling him shortly.”
But then Obama changes his mind. He wants to leave now. This is duly communicated on all channels. “Halfback, copy. We’re moving.”
So the agent in Romney’s follow-up Suburban radios his detail leader: “You got to bring him down now. We just got word that POTUS wants to depart. We have a small window to do this.”
The pecking order of democracy is reduced to this: When the president wants to go, he gets to go. When the challenger wants to do something, he has to wait. His frustration is evident in the voices of his agents as they check on the status of the president. “We gotta do this now,” the agent in the follow-up repeats.
Finally, after about a 25-minute wait, Javelin and Jockey, Mitt and Ann Romney, are in their armored Suburban, and their motorcade is rolling.
About 15 minutes later, Obama’s much larger package departs for a quick three-minute trip to a landing zone. Marine One will ferry him to JFK Airport, where Air Force One awaits. An hour and a half later, Obama is back at the White House. The package is secure.
The security breach in Atlanta might be indicative of a larger failing of the Secret Service, of complacency, of a corner cut too many times without consequences. Clearly, a whistleblower, probably connected to the president’s detail, was appalled that the incident was not taken more seriously.
Or the breach might simply have been the result of an agent attempting to mitigate risks and use the resources available in a way that reflects both training and instincts.
Obama, who was told of the incident just a few moments before members of Congress disclosed it to the press, is keen to know which it was.