They train you to “get big”. That means when the shooting starts and everyone is ducking you’re making yourself as big as possible to get in the way of the bullets.
If you just need an example of how well it’s ingrained in the training process, just watch the 1981 Reagan shooting and watch Tim McCarthy, one his agents. He spreads his arms, his legs, and puts his torso towards the bullet and he eats it. That’s what they train you to do, to get big. You don’t have to think about it. When you look at McCarthy there is no thinking, he just does it.
Good agents I know rehearse it in their heads. They would say: if there’s a gunshot, I’ll grab the president, turn left, go down the hallway. If someone on the rope line has an overly aggressive handshake, I’ll pull their thumb back. You go over and over it in your head so that when it happens, you just do it.
I’d like to give you a romantic description of the average work day, thinking: “You’re under fire, you’re fearing death.” But you don’t want to operate like that day-to-day. You couldn’t. You’d go grey quickly. Let me just tell you, the fear of failing your fellow agents is far, far worse than the stress of “Wow I’m standing a foot away from the most powerful man on earth, I may become a casualty of war here.” It is a brotherhood, and the stress of failing your fellow agents is the worst part.
I was on for the last years of the George W Bush presidency and by that point he’d been pretty much Secret Serviced out. His father was the president, he had been protected as governor of Texas, and by then he was nearing the end of a two-term presidency. He was quiet but pleasant and in no way rude, and his family was wonderful.
Then when President Obama came in, he was clearly as new to Secret Service protection as you could get. And he’d come by and grab you on the elbow and say “What’s your name? Where ya from? What sports team do you like?”
I remember one time he told me he liked my suit and asked me for my tailor, and I thought that was kind of funny. You’re the president of the United States, you don’t need my tailor. They can take care of that for you. You don’t want to be friends with the protectee. You really don’t. You almost want to look to them in a robotic fashion and not get emotionally involved.
My scariest moment was with Mr Obama in Afghanistan, an active war zone. An Army two-star general, who was running the operation, let us know pretty clearly that there was a very real threat of mortar fire as we flew Air Force one into Baghram. I kissed the ground when we got back to the US.
There’s always tension between the White House staff and the Secret Service. The White House staff’s goal is to make the president look good, get him re-elected, make sure the optics are good. The Secret Service’s goal is to keep this man safe and secure no matter what. That’s a natural friction.
The fence jumping was unbelievable. I thought it was a joke when I saw it. How could it possibly be true? That fence has been there since 1965 and no one has ever got into the White House. So for close to fifty years our success rate was 100 per cent. But that doesn’t matter because we’re in an error-free job.
Should they have shot him when he climbed over the fence? It’s very easy to say that kind of thing when the front sight of your pistol is not trained on a man’s head. The bottom line in the end is: Are you ready to shoot an Iraq War vet with a severe mental disorder?
You want to put a bullet in his head?
If you’re drawing your firearm to protect the president we’re in a lot of trouble. We’re not bodyguards. If you’re resorting to bodyguard work and physical protection then something went wrong with your advance plan.
We’re not there to fight, we’re there to run. This isn’t a “who’s got bigger biceps contest”. We’re there to get the president out. It’s not a Billy the Kid thing here. We have operational units that do fight, but that’s not the agents. The agents are there to run because we’re there to keep the president alive.