A RARE GLIMPSE INTO THE LIFE OF A SECRET SERVICE AGENT
Here’s a rare glimpse into the life of a Secret Service agent circa 2008.
2008 was a campaign year (McCain vs. Obama), and I found myself assigned to the Candidate Nominee Operation Section (CNOS) detail of McCain’s vice presidential pick— Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska.
Being attached to a Secret Service CNOS detail looks like this:
This cycle continues until the election in November and, if necessary, the inauguration.
MY FIRst rotation on the palin detail
My first rotation on the Palin detail went as smoothly as possible. But upon my return to the field office, I needed to prepare for a trial—a precedential case that ended up in various law books. If you want, you can read about it HERE.
My second rotation on the Palin detail was a whirlwind of travel. Rally after rally. City after city. State after state, including trips back to Alaska. Everything blurred together as one. On several occasions, I woke up inside my hotel room, not knowing which city I was in.
A VISIT BY THE IRANIAN PRESIDENT IS CLASSIFIED AS A HIGH THREAT LEVEL
The 2008 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) started at the end of my second CNOS rotation. My UNGA assignment that year: protect the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Secret Service classified the visit of the Iranian President as HIGH THREAT LEVEL. This classification meant the Iranian President would receive additional assets, including Motorcade Route Security, Aviation, Counter Snipers, Counter Assault Teams (CAT), Magnetometer Teams, etc.
For this visit, I conducted the transportation advance. And the first thing I had to do was liaise with NYPD Intel, NYPD Highway, NYPD aviation, NYPD Harbor, U.S. CoastGuard, and other federal agencies. I wanted to avoid the scenario that happened the last time Ahmadinejad came to NYC. (You can read about that HERE )
SWORN TO PROTECT OUR ENEMY
Here’s a quick side note. The Secret Service never tells new agents they are not only expected to lay down their life for the U.S. President but are also responsible for ensuring the safety of our enemies when they visit our country. In retrospect, it’s mind-boggling to think I had to protect our enemy. And make no mistake about it, the Iranian government is our enemy. But can you imagine if a foreign head of state was hurt or killed on U.S. soil while under the Secret Service protection? It’s safe to say it would be a disaster.
AHMADINEJAD LANDS AT JFK AIRPORT
With my routes picked and secure, and the cars and personnel all lined up at a far off terminal of the JFK airport, it was showtime.
The Iranian equivalent of AirForce One touched down and taxied over to us. The plane looked like this:
After the plane pulled up to the hangar, we waited… and waited, and we waited some more. Why, you ask? Because the Iranian pilots couldn’t shut down one of the engines.
I may not be a pilot, but I’ve been around all types of aircraft, and I had never seen that happen—especially to a plane transporting a Head of State.
The engine had to be manually stopped. And to do that, the Port Authority had to employ a special piece of equipment stored on the other side of the airport.
Forty-five embarrassing minutes later, the two stair trucks finally pulled up to the aircraft.
We loaded up the vehicles. I lead the motorcade from the Pilot vehicle—an NYPD HIGHWAY unit. We slowly made our way off the tarmac. Thankfully we had a six-unit motorcycle team supporting us—responsible for stopping traffic, controlling intersections, and blocking any on/off ramps.
KEEP YOUR HEAD ON A SWIVEL
We sailed unhampered into the city. Our destination? The Intercontinental Hotel. Although our ride into the city was smooth and uneventful, once we crossed the East River, we encountered the nightmare of New York City’s nighttime traffic.
Stressed out doesn’t even begin to tell you how I and everyone else felt. To the Secret Service, everything is a potential threat—the people walking along the sidewalks, the cars parked on the side of the street, everything. “Keep your head on a swivel,” was something Secret Service instructors drilled into agent’s heads at the Academy.
It was almost midnight when the motorcade arrived at the hotel. And because we were one of the last details to arrive for the night, I had to play “musical chairs” with the other Secret Service and Diplomatic Security motorcades parked on the street—including two different HIGH THREAT LEVEL designated countries.
THe IRANIAN DETAL NO LONGER HAD A PRIMARY LIMOUSINE
It was 1 AM by the time I got our vehicles situated. Before turning in for the night, I performed one last visual of the motorcade. To my surprise, I noticed the primary limo was sagging to one side.
“What the…,” I uttered as I bent down to examine the right rear wheel. It looked as if an axel was broke. This wasn’t something I could fix; I needed to call a mechanic.
The first movement the next day was at 8 AM. That gave me seven hours to get the problem fixed.
The mechanic arrived an hour later. His diagnosis: the axel was busted and wasn’t fixable on the street.
The Iranian detail no longer had a primary limousine. And as the Lead Transportation agent, the entire motorcade was my responsibility. I was screwed.
I called the Lead Agent with the news. His response went something like this: “Chris, you’re resourceful and competent, so, do whatever you need to do to make sure there is a limo waiting for us when we leave in the morning. Good luck.”
So what did I do? First, because I was still responsible for the limo, I had to wait until a tow truck arrived and hauled it away. Then, I called the Secret Service Motor Pool to see about a replacement. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim.
My choices? A couple of Towne Cars and a few lightly armored Suburbans. But nothing adequate for a HIGH THREAT LEVEL detail.
I then called over to the Secret Service Logistics Desk. I asked the guy who answered, “Which countries, if any, are leaving tomorrow?”
His response was, “Micronesia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique and Canada.”
“Canada?” I said. “They have an armored limo, right?”
“What hotel are they staying at?” I asked.
As it turned out, the Candian delegation was staying at a hotel not far away. I grabbed one of my drivers, an agent assigned to the Vice President’s details, and we drove to the motor pool in Brooklyn. There, I signed out a Suburban and drove it to the hotel where the Canada detail was staying. I then “stole” their limo.
At least that’s what I tell people. In actuality, it took some serious negotiating, and the promise to buy several rounds of drinks. But in the end, the Lead Agent in charge of the Candian detail agreed to “give-up” his limo in exchange for the Suburban I signed out from the motor pool.
I drove the “new” limo back to the Intercontinental Hotel and parked it near the rest of the motorcade. It was 4 AM. I got one hour of sleep that night.
THE IRANIANS LIED
The next morning, our first movement was to the United Nations. As a HIGH-LEVEL detail, we parked the cars in the ellipse in front of the building. The Iranian’s told us that they would be at the U.N. for at least three hours.
The Iranians lied.
When my NYPD Highway counterparts heard we had three hours of “down-time,” they left their vehicles to get coffee and something to eat at the Canteen across the street.
I asked the NYPD sergeant to keep one man behind—just in case—but he politely ignored my request. It’s the NYPD after all, and it’s their city, and as most federal agents will tell you, the NYPD doesn’t take instructions from the Feds.
Thirty minutes after our arrival, the Secret Service detail leader called out over the radio, “Bring the motorcade up. We’re coming out.”
Huh? Did I hear that right? Did the detail leader just say, “bring the motorcade up.” But I thought we had three hours?
Two seconds later, my fears were confirmed when the Detail Leader said, “Bring the cars up now! We’re headed back to the hotel.”
My NYPD Highway counterparts, including the drivers of the marked police car I was manifested in, were MIA. Also missing were the NYPD motorcycles we used for intersection control. Thankfully, the NYPD intel officers assigned to the detail hadn’t left. They waved me over. “Chris, jump in with us!”
I DREADED WHAT I HAD TO SAY NEXT
I could tell by the expression on the detail leader’s face he wasn’t happy when I pulled up in the unmarked NYPD Intel sedan. Thankfully though, I had the critical part of the motorcade in tow —the secure package.
One of the Secret Service shift agents opened the door to the limo. Ahmadinejad got in. The detail leader closed the door. “Let’s get going,” he said over the radio.
As the motorcade started rolling, I dreaded what I had to say next. I unclipped my radio. “Be advised,” I said, “we will not have NYPD assets for this movement and will not have any intersection control.”
“Roger,” came the reply from the detail leader. “Just get us back safely.”
Thankfully, it was a short ride back to the hotel. The NYPD assets caught up after we arrived, and the conversation I had with them was not pleasant.
Somehow, through the grace of God, nothing happened, but I made sure nothing like that ever happened again—not while the detail was still operational in NYC.
BEING AN AGENT IS A GRUELING, STrESSFUL, AND MOST OF THE TIME, THANKLESS JOB
Several other exciting things happened during the visit, including:
• A large group of protestors tried to stop the motorcade
• A massive demonstration gathered outside of the hotel
All of it kept us on our toes.
My experience during my CNOS and UNGA assignments is something Secret Service agents deal with regularly. Being an agent is grueling, stressful, and most of the time, thankless job. But hopefully, you’ve gained a little insight into the life of a Secret Service agent. And maybe the next time you see an agent, you feel compelled to say, “Thank you for your service.”