To appear in the March 2011 Atlantic Magazine
When President Obama and two-thirds of the world’s leaders gather in New York City, it is up to the U.S. Secret Service to keep them all safe. Granted unprecedented access, our author tells the story of how the agency pulls off the most complicated security event of the year, from counter-surveillance to counter-assault, hotel booking to event scheduling.
On a warm September evening in New York City, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slowly walked down the staircase of his official plane, idling in a remote corner of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Waiting to greet him were a gaggle of invited (and carefully screened) journalists, U.S. consular officials, and the like. But there was at least one face in the small crowd that Ahmadinejad recognized immediately, that of a U.S. Secret Service agent whom I’ll call Jack. (For security reasons, the service prefers not to publicize the names of its agents working on protective details.) A lean, compact man in his late 40s, Jack wore what passes for a uniform in the Secret Service: dark suit with a slight, artificial paunch around the middle (the result of gun, radio, handcuffs, and badge), light-blue shirt, and red tie. This was Jack’s third stint as a senior agent on the Iran detail, but his first as detail leader. He was the man charged by the U.S. government with ensuring the safety of arguably the nation’s most public enemy.
Jack does not consider Ahmadinejad a friend, and he is somewhat uncomfortable being one of the few Americans the Iranian leader has gotten to know firsthand. (Ahmadinejad had grown so fond of Jack’s predecessor as detail leader— an agent since promoted to a more senior position—that he’d called him by his first name, asked after his children, and even, upon arriving and departing the country, given him formal kisses on each cheek.) But Jack was nonetheless proud of the job with which he had been entrusted: protecting the life of a man with a bull’s-eye on his back, and getting him door-to-door for six days, from limo to hotel to high-level meeting, as safely and expeditiously as possible.
Ahmadinejad was in New York for the 65th United Nations General Assembly—or UNGA, typically pronounced just the way it looks. While the Iranian leader’s visit was particularly high-profile and politically fraught, it was by no means unique. In 2010, the annual event required more than 200 Secret Service details for foreign leaders, American officials, and spouses, along with another 60 or so State Department security details for lower-level protectees. (This is in addition to the thousands of New York City police officers called upon to help secure buildings and traffic routes, and lead motorcades.) Over the course of the event, 900 aircraft would fly in and out of JFK bearing dignitaries; hundreds of events across the city would need to be scouted and secured.
Yet, remarkably, the General Assembly has become an almost unremarkable event, at least by Secret Service standards. There have been 38 “National Special Security Events” since President Clinton first coined the term in a classified 1998 national-security directive. Most of these NSSEs have occurred since September 11, 2001, and 14 of them since 2007, including the two presidential conventions, President-elect Obama’s pre-inauguration whistle-stop train tour, the inauguration itself, and the 2008 and 2009 G-20 summits. The General Assembly poses greater security and logistical challenges than many, if not most, of these events. This is due in part to its size, and in part to the fact that habit is the worst enemy of protective security, and the assembly offers an extremely attractive, recurring target: many foreign leaders stay in the same hotels and attend the same events at the same times each year. But despite all this, the General Assembly has not been categorized as an NSSE since 2001. The Secret Service has it down to a science.
This is the story of a dog that didn’t bark, and of the men and women who kept it muzzled. The Secret Service receives dozens of requests each year from reporters who want a peek inside the agency; most are quickly turned down. Typically, the service provides context for media coverage of its major security events by opening its training facility in Beltsville, Maryland. There, it can put on a show—complete with motorcades and simulated attacks—in a tightly controlled environment. It took me more than 18 months to persuade the service to let me be the first reporter to see the process from the inside in a real-world, real-time situation. I was allowed access to command posts, operation centers, and other secure areas. I agreed only to withhold some details about protective methodology that would imperil the service’s ability to do its job.