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Security Lapses Trigger Questions About What Secret Service Agents Do


The Secret Service has been in the spotlight recently and not in a good way. The security breaches at the agency have triggered questions about what exactly it is the Secret Service does day in and day out. We've called up Dan Emmett. He's the author of the book "Within Arm's Length." He also served in the presidential detail during both Bush presidencies as well as President Clinton's. He says the work of a Secret Service agent is a daily grind.

DAN EMMETT: Nothing about the work is glamorous. It's extremely hard work. When people ask me, what is it like to be on the presidential detail, I tell them, well, go about two days with no sleep, stand out in the rain for a while, miss several meals, then get on an airplane and fly somewhere and sit up from midnight until 8 in the morning and somewhere along the way, miss your wedding anniversary, your children's graduation and recitals. It's a life of a lot of sleep deprivation, nutritional deprivation. And essentially for every hour you spend with the president, you spend about a hundred hours doing other things that are not related to him directly.

MARTIN: What are the rules guiding your interactions with the president?

EMMETT: So much of what the Secret Service does - the culture of the Secret Service - is not in writing. And how an agent deals with the president is completely a professional relationship. It is not a friendship. An agent never initiates conversation with the president, other than to say good morning, sir. A lot of times, the president will engage you, and if he does, then a few exchanges back and forth, and the conversation really should be over.

MARTIN: The Secret Service are often portrayed in films and popular culture, and, you know, they're always these very good-looking, big men who are running alongside the presidential motorcade and, you know, drawing their weapon. You're painting a very different picture, where Secret Service agents do a lot of waiting - right? - just waiting.

EMMETT: Well, there are two sides to the Secret Service, Rachel. One of course is the investigative side. Agents are extremely busy with counterfeit investigations and so on. When you go to protection, however, there is a lot of waiting. There is a lot of standing around. I once had an instructor tell me, Dan, if you are going to have to stand outside of a door all night and be miserable, the president of the United States should be on the other side of that door.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

EMMETT: So - but you might have to do something very quickly with very little warning.

MARTIN: Was there an instance that you can recall where even you had to work really hard not to let your concentration slip?

EMMETT: When you go on foreign trips when the president goes overseas, you are going through your jet lag; you're operating on virtually no sleep. And I can recall going up to four days with no sleep. And of course the human mind, after a certain amount of time, no matter how disciplined, no matter how well-trained, is going to start to trail off a bit.

MARTIN: So what's been your take away as you have watched this scandal unfold as someone who's served under three presidents?

EMMETT: It's been very difficult. You never really leave if you were ever a Secret Service agent. That kind of follows you through life. But we never thought that there was going to be operational issues or tactical issues.

MARTIN: Do you think the agency needs to do some soul-searching, and what would that look like?

EMMETT: There is going to be a major, major investigation of the Secret Service carried out by an independent body. Once that is done - what we call the eighth floor, meaning the headquarters on the director's floor - I think a lot of those agents are going to be asked to retire.

Now, they're not going to go out on the street. They're all going to have very good pensions, so don't feel sorry for them. Most of them are very good agents, but over time, they have just become stagnant and really are not paying attention to what's going on out in the real Secret Service.

MARTIN: Dan Emmett. He served in the Secret Service under three American presidents. He is also the author of the book "Within Arm's Length." Thank you so much.

EMMETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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