Dialogs: Carol Leonnig and Andrea Mitchell Discuss the Secret Service, Politicization, Failures of Imagination

Carol Leonnig (l, top), Andrea Mitchell (r, top), and a sign language interpreter (lower right) speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Most of us don’t think of imagination when we think of the Secret Service, if we think of them at all. They’re the President’s bodyguards, after all, and how much imagination does that take? But as Carol Leonnig and Andrea Mitchell made clear in their Chicago Humanities Festival discussion of Leonnig’s new book, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, imagination has much to do with the agency—and they often don’t have enough.

Both Leonnig and Mitchell cover Washington, or elements thereof, and they began the conversation by noting that the Secret Service is not, for the most part, its own beat. Since 2012, however, it has been Leonnig’s. She came to it following a 2012 scandal, when several Secret Service agents were caught in a sex-and-alcohol-fueled scandal during an Obama presidential trip and were sent home. She assumed, she notes during the conversation, that this was the most humiliating thing that could happen to the Secret Service. It was, after all, a pretty big embarrassment. But she was wrong.

Zero Fail is built around interviews, Leonnig’s conversations with current and former Secret Service agents, their family members, and others connected to the agency. She makes clear that such candid discussions come at a cost: several of her sources later lost their jobs, as they were not authorized to speak with the media. Indeed, Leonnig argued that their courage in coming forward to discuss the more sordid side of their agency gives added weight to their words, and encourages Congress, the President, and the American people to listen.

Failures of imagination cropped up repeatedly in Leonnig and Mitchell’s conversation, as they discussed such failures as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and multiple fiascos surrounding security—and the presidential bunker—around 9/11. Leonnig noted that after the assassination of JFK the agency went through a massive overhaul with extensive rebuilding, which culminated in quick, life-saving responses to later assassination attempts, including the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan.

Despite the heroism displayed at the Reagan assassination attempt, however, Leonnig noted that it too proved a failure. John Hinckley Jr. shouldn't have gotten so close. The perimeter should have been better secured. This odd failure of imagination or perhaps simply of insufficiently thorough investigation, ran throughout Leonnig and Mitchell’s conversation.

Leonnig described the post-9/11 period as a slow slide that led almost to the demise of the Secret Service. It is likely not something most of us have given a thought when we thought about the Secret Service in the post-9/11 world. One might rightly assume that the Presidential bodyguards would be given priority in a time of upheaval and terrorism. However, as Leonnig and her sources demonstrate, it hasn’t been the case. Indeed, when the Secret Service was folded into the Department of Homeland Security it began to lose budgetary resources while at the same time taking on additional duties.

It’s worth noting here, as both Mitchell and Leonnig do, that the Secret Service was originally a bureau to investigate counterfeit money, operating under the auspices of the Treasury. While a move to the Department of Homeland Security might make more sense than remaining under the Treasury, the Secret Service has fallen by the wayside in the fight for departmental funding while at the same time gaining more and more tasks. These range from protection to investigative work; the agency also provides security and threat assessments for spaces where large numbers of Americans gather, such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics.

Politicization is also a problem in the contemporary Secret Service. Several of Leonnig’s sources provided screen shots of discourse in favor of the January 6 insurrection on the US capitol from current Secret Service agents and supervisors. Indeed, several supervisors and agents actively engaged in conspiracy theories around the election while supporting the insurrection.

Leonnig noted that much of the Presidential security detail supported the former president’s actions. Often they demanded other law enforcement agents, including Secret Service agents, remove their masks since Trump didn’t like masks, putting law enforcement agents and their families at heightened risk of COVID. Leonnig pointed to Trump’s COVID diagnosis as itself a security failure. One should not allow the President to be in situations where they could be infected with a raging virus.

In addition to support of the January 6 insurrection, Leonnig noted that the Secret Service did not provide President-elect Joe Biden and his family with the requisite security detail until well after such a detail should have been in place. Mitchell and Leonnig also discussed threats and threat assessments, briefly discussing anti-Catholic threats during JFK's administration before moving to a discussion of the white supremacist and white nationalist threats made against President Barack Obama, and the way Secret Service failures during Obama’s eight years in office put his family at risk.

Leonnig believes that that Secret Service is a noble calling, and an institution filled with honorable patriots who strive to protect the office of the President and, through that, national security. Yet she makes it clear that the institution itself must change. Her sources, she says, are sounding the alarm, and deserve to be heard.

Learn more about Zero Fail at the publisher, and about the program at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Picture of the author
Caitlin Archer-Helke