Thursday, February 05, 2009

Shhhh . . . They’re Secret

Amid complaints that security at President Obama’s inauguration was on the lax side, a Secret Service spokesman was quoted as saying, “The agency’s security measures are not always visible.” Surprise!

During my government service, I encountered the secret agents twice. My observations were (1) the real surprise is how public Secret Service operatives actually can be; and (2) those guys are very good at their jobs.

During my time at the Intermountain Research Station, the Station Director dispatched me and two other staff members to Washington, DC for a week to take a training course given by the Juran Institute, a consulting group reputed to be leading experts in the “Management by Objectives” system that was the current fad among government and private industry gurus. My teammates were Gordon Booth, the Station Biometrician, and Maureen Stettler, a rising star in the Operations Group. Our job was to learn all we could about MBO and come back with recommendations as to whether the Station should adopt all, some, or none of the ideas.

The class met in a hotel several doors down the street from the Soviet Embassy. Room rates in that hotel were too high for Forest Service types, so we lodged about six blocks away in a Holiday Inn. An early continental breakfast was included in the course benefits, and the three of us made an early morning hike every day to take advantage of that. Only a few classmates rose early enough for the breakfast hour.

One man was there every morning before we arrived. He bore a remarkable resemblance to actor Stacey Keach, and was the only classmate who always wore a dark suit and tie. He also was the only one with a slight bulge in his jacket near his left shoulder, which all of us concluded meant his was packing “heat.” A name tag he always wore confirmed that possibility. It clearly read: Secret Service.

After saying hello on the first morning, we started to share a table with the agent every morning. He told us he had been a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, and described his work with the Secret Service in detail. He left one thing out; he obviously was there guarding someone, but he never revealed who that was by word or action. We learned later that the Postmaster General of the U.S. was among our classmates, and so was a Marine Corps general, but we never noticed the agent going near either man.

Of course, it didn’t take long for us to observe that an agent wearing a Secret Service name tag wasn’t very secret. And the cold war was pretty warm at the time, and the Russians were just down the street. Our agent shrugged that off. “They know who we are, and we know who they are. Most of us don’t work under cover. But some do, and they’re around at the right times.”

There were no reports of anyone being attacked on embassy row the week we were there, so it seems fair to conclude that our public agent friend and his secret buddies did their jobs well.

About a year later, the annual national meeting of Forest Service information directors was held in a hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. By then, smoking had been banned in meeting rooms, so I stepped out into the hallway at intervals to have a puff. One day at mid-morning a man dressed in a dark suit was standing on a stairway next to my adopted smoking area. He asked what my business was in the hotel, and when I told him he said he too worked for the Federal Government--as a Secret Service agent!

“The First Lady is coming to give a talk at a luncheon for Republican leaders,” he said. “Mrs. Bush will be coming right by here and going into that room. We scouted everything out yesterday.” The room was directly across the hallway from our meeting room. “If you come back about 11:30, you’ll get to see her,” the agent said.

I ventured the opinion it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to attack the extremely popular Barbara Bush. “Not so,” the agent said. “She is a grand lady, but there are lots of crazies out there, and we take no chances.”

Impressed by a Secret Service assessment that I wasn’t a crazy, I showed up shortly before 11:30. It was a good feeling to know the agent trusted me. But he proved he didn’t trust anybody. “You can stand over there,” he said. “Keep your hands out of your pockets. You can clap when she goes by if you want to, but that’s it. Don’t make any moves to go toward her.”

Mrs. Bush arrived on schedule in the middle of an entourage. I noticed several men in dark suits ahead and behind the group. When the doors opened and the assembled luncheon crowd cheered, I added a bit to the applause for her. I didn’t make any other moves.

Michael Contezac occupied an office next to mine when I started my Forest Service career at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. Contezac had worked in the White House before transferring to FPL. He characterized his job in Washington as “pretty much of an errand boy.” Frequently, people in the communications office handed news releases to Contezac and he was charged with delivering them without delay to a duplicating and mailing operation in another part of the building.

Contezac’s favorite story about White House duty attested to Secret Service efficiency. He said he was trotting down a hallway with a news release one day when he turned a corner and bumped into a tall man. The next thing he knew he was flat on his back on the floor. When he looked up, a .45 was pointed squarely at his eye. “Son, you should take it a little easy around here,” the tall man said.

The tall man was Lyndon Johnson. The gunman, of course, was a Secret Service agent. They take no chances.

No comments: