How Would You Protect the President of the United States? Here's What the Secret Service Does

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tags: Secret Service, presidential assassinations

Mel Ayton's latest book is "Hunting The President" (April 2014). He frequently writes for HNN.

When Teddy Roosevelt was president he often went for walks around Washington accompanied by only a single Secret Service agent. Sometimes he carried a pistol and believed he could protect himself adequately if he was attacked. Today, the threat of attacks on the president has changed dramatically since Roosevelt’s time and it is now considered inconceivable for a president to leave the sanctuary of the White House without at least twenty agents. 

The Secret Service employs approximately 3,200 special agents, 1,300 Uniformed Division officers, and more than 2,000 other technical, professional and administrative support personnel. There are now more than 100 men attached to the president’s protective detail and at least 100 agents accompany him on his foreign trips. As expert marksmen their suits are tailored to hide SIG Sauer P229 handguns and they are also equipped with Remington 870 shotguns as well as Uzi submachine guns and Heckler and Kotch MP5 sub-machine guns. (1)

When the president leaves the White House to travel around the United States or abroad he will enter an armour-plated limousine and a heavily protected aircraft - Air Force One. The plane is one of a fleet of 27 aircraft at his disposal. A team of at least 17 agents travel with the president when he is on-board with a similar number in a second aircraft. Others travel in helicopters and limousines. A $20 million dollar upgrade to the aircraft fleet following 9/11 provided the president with a mobile control centre giving him the ability to run the country from the air. 

At the center of the security arrangements is the presidential motorcade consisting of 35 vehicles. The four presidential limousines, stretch Cadillac DeVilles with a shell made of five inches of titanium-ceramic armor, cost $2 million each to build. The extra modifications to the Cadillacs made them weigh in at 6 tons.

When Air Force One touches down the president is quickly surrounded by his personal detail before he is huddled into a helicopter or limousine. Both the motorcade and helicopters then depart as if they were carrying the president leaving potential attackers uncertain of his whereabouts. Two of the limousines are included in each motorcade, the route having being secured before the president arrives. Local police vehicles are positioned at the front and rear and two armored presidential vehicles holding agents are sandwiched between the police vehicles. Secret Service snipers, members of the elite Counter Sniper Team (CST), are positioned at key points along the route.

The protection afforded the White House is no less stringent. Uniformed Secret Service officers patrol the grounds. The building is situated inside a 10 foot high wrought iron fence; it is fixed with bullet-proof windows and surrounded by concrete barriers intended to prevent bomb-laden cars and trucks. The White House is staffed with explosives-sniffing dogs and their handlers. Electronic metal detectors and surveillance cameras are situated around every corner. Security patrols and rooftop marksmen are on the constant lookout for intruders. The White House is also protected by Stinger missiles situated on the roof of the adjacent Executive Office Building which can shoot down any airborne threat to the building. When the president leaves the sanctuary of the White House he is accompanied by dozens of staffers and scores of uniformed and non-uniformed guards.

The level of security has increased exponentially since President Franklin Roosevelt’s time and for good reason. As former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine said, “…the tools of the assassin are far more sophisticated. Sniper rifles can strike a person’s head from over a mile away with accuracy. Missiles, radioactive materials, biological weapons, chemicals, explosive devices and the dreaded nuclear weapon are available.” (2) 

The president’s immediate protection is provided by the Presidential Protective Detail (PPD) otherwise known as “the brotherhood.” Agents today who have been chosen for this detail are usually men and women who have great self-control during times of stress, are meticulous planners and have proven experience and merit. They are trained to cover and relocate the president in times of emergency, especially armed attack and can react within a split second if necessary. They are trained to respond to gunfire, trained to expect the unexpected and are constantly ready to spring into action if a would-be attacker is spotted. Because of the highly stressful nature of the job and the high burn-out rate agents usually work no more than five years on the presidential detail.  

The PPD is supported by the Protective Research Division (PRD) which consults psychiatrists to try and develop ‘profiles’ of would-be assassins. The division also maintains a list of several thousand persons who are considered to be a threat to the president and a watch list of several hundred people who are known to be dangerous.

In 2009 a Secret Service report disclosed that security around the president had been breached at least 91 times since 1980. The report revealed that significant gaps exist that could be exploited by would-be assassins. (3) Additionally, the uniformed branch of the Secret Service has been plagued by ‘fence jumpers’ - men and women who attempt to gain surreptitious entry to the grounds of the White House. Each year scores of individuals who make the attempt are arrested. Many are not charged but taken to St Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington DC for evaluation.

Potential threateners and attackers have numbered in the scores including:  

  • A would-be armed assassin nicknamed ‘Catman’ who stalked President Reagan to Gracie Mansion in New York but his shot was apparently blocked by agents. Catman was so named by agents because he had sent threatening letters to the president along with numerous photos of cats.
  • David A. Mahonski who pointed his16 gauge shotgun at Secret Service uniformed officers outside the White House.
  • An Illinois man who waited at an airport for President Reagan’s arrival armed with a sniper rifle. He was arrested on unrelated charges but agents believed he was there to shoot the president. 
  • An armed woman by the name of Mary Frances Carrier who stalked President Reagan to Dumfries, Virginia, a location where the president rode horses.
  • Gregory Stuart Gordon who climbed the fence of Ronald Reagan’s Bel Air home and attempted to ‘strangle’ the former president before he was subdued by agents.
  • David Russell who attended a President George H.W. Bush rally armed with a .45 caliber handgun.
  • Deborah Butler who came close to shooting President Bush (41) as he passed her in his limousine at a campaign event.
  • Ronald Gene Barbour who went to the National Mall in Washington each day armed with his .45 handgun intending to shoot Clinton while the president was jogging.
  • In recent times a man in the Republic of Georgia threw a hand grenade at President George W. Bush and an Idaho man, who wanted to kill President Obama, fired shots at the White House with an automatic weapon. 

In 2003 former President Ford said, “There is little wisdom in the world to know who might be a potential assassin.” (4) However, the majority of threateners and would-be assassins I researched for my book, Hunting The President,  arguablyfit a group portrait – that of an unemployed young white male, a failure and a drifter, unloved and unable to love with little or no contact with women; if they developed a relationship with a woman they frequently experienced emotional difficulties; they were loveless, obsessional, lonely, hating, frustrated, and psychically and socially alienated; almost all had some form of personality disorder. Most of them were deceptively calm, well–behaved, often shy individuals who grew up controlling themselves until an incident in their lives acted as a catalyst for action.

A central common characteristic of would-be assassins and threateners is their desire to engage in some form of attention-seeking. They often exhibit bizarre behavior or have a strong desire to achieve infamy. Sirhan Sirhan, for example, who threatened to kill President Johnson before he changed his target to Senator Robert F Kennedy, bragged to an acquaintance he was going to kill Kennedy. He had a deep-seated desire to become an Arab hero. Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to be an important figure in revolutionary politics. Samuel Byck, a white man, tried to join the Black Panthers. Arthur Bremer dressed in bizarre clothing at political rallies for Nixon and Wallace. Lynette Fromme, who tried to kill President Ford, dressed in red robes and constantly tried to interest the media in writing about the hippie cult leader Charles Manson who had been found guilty of multiple murders. Sara Jane Moore was enamoured with revolutionary politics and told police and Secret Service agents she wanted to test President Ford’s security. John Hinckley tried to win the attention of Jodie Foster by killing President Reagan.

Each year the Secret Service receives notification of numerous threats made against the president’s life. Threats are made either by letters sent to the White House or by telephoning the White House. Often, reports arrive from local law enforcement agencies that the president has been threatened. 

Although numerous presidential threateners have been sent to prison, not all have been serious in their threats. The Secret Service is also aware that most threats spoken out loud are not serious but simply intended to impress others. In the 1970s Secret Service agent Marty Vencker was given the job of ruling out which potential attackers were unlikely to carry out their threats. “There were a lot of false alarms,” Vencker wrote. “Some drunk would mouth off in a bar, or some guy would get back at his neighbor by sending a crank letter to the White House and signing the neighbor’s name. We’d sometimes have to remind them that even a verbal threat to the president carried a maximum fine of a $1000 and a five year jail term.” (5)

Alternatively, threateners who have been freed after investigation may, indeed, have been serious in their intentions. Because the resources of the Secret Service are always limited each threat cannot be pursued in equal measure. The Secret Service must determine which intelligence reports regarding threats should be pursued and which should receive scant attention. The procedures are not scientific and therefore the agency has in the past made mistakes.

Such was the case with Sara Jane Moore who had been questioned by Secret Service agents and later attempted to assassinate President Ford. During Nixon’s presidency would-be assassin Samuel Byck had caught the attention of the Secret Service but the agency did not judge Byck to be a real threat. The decision not to closely monitor Byck had tragic consequences when he attempted to hijack a plane, killing the co-pilot in the process. His actions could have been worse if he had succeeded in his plans to crash the plane into the White House. (6)

Determining whether or not a threatener qualifies as a dangerous subject is “the most difficult thing of all,” according to former agent Joseph Petro.  If the answer is positive the Secret Service places the threatener on a watch list after they conduct intensive enquiries about his or her background. The threatener is then interviewed frequently, perhaps on a monthly basis. (7)

A “threat” is a statement expressing an intention to kill or injure the president. Because the offence consists of pure speech the courts have issued rulings attempting to balance the government’s interest in protecting the president with free speech rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution. A “true threat” means a serious threat as distinguished from words used as a mere political argument, idle or careless talk or something said in a joking manner. The essence of the offense is “knowingly and wilfully” making a “true” threat. 

Making the judgment whether or not a threat is non-serious, serious or dangerous resides with agents who take each case on its merits using a combination of facts they have discovered in their investigation (including reports from medical experts) and their own common sense approach. And they appear to be the best people who can make that judgment call. “At one time,” an agent said, “the mental health experts said that our agents’ gut reaction is as good as their PhDs, their street experience works just as well.” (8) A study by psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan at the University of San Francisco concluded that Secret Service agents are professional in their judgements of what or who constitutes a threat partly because they “scored well above FBI agents and CIA agents in spotting liars.” (9)

Additionally, agents have been given wide powers and for good reason – few jobs are more dangerous as the president’s. While the murder rate among private citizens is one out of 13,530 people, one out of 10 presidents has been assassinated and a fifth was shot. Additionally, as protective intelligence is part science, part old fashioned investigation and part common sense, the statute prohibiting threats to the President of the United States gives a lot of latitude when conducting an investigation. 

Secret Service agents will judge if the case should be held in abeyance with the individual closely monitored or charges levelled. Often the threatener is sent to a mental hospital for psychiatric observation. Agents discuss amongst themselves the threatener’s motivation, the people who overheard the threatener, if the threatener has been linked to an extremist organization; if he has been involved in violent behavior, especially menacing or stalking behavior, and whether he has a history of mental illness, especially delusional ideas and feelings of persecution. Crucially, the Secret Service would need to discover whether or not the threatener is capable of carrying out a plan including acquiring weapons, gaining access to a target and foiling security measures. Agents also flag those individuals who have had a recent loss of a loved one or a loss of status.

The courts have decided that mere hyperbole should be distinguished from real threats. This decision was reached in the 1960s after an 18 year old youth was charged with threatening the life of President Johnson at a political rally. The youth was found guilty but his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which decided the youth’s statement about wanting to shoot LBJ should have been taken in context. In other words, common sense should have been applied and that any reasonable person would not have judged the youth to be serious in his alleged intent.

Courts have further ruled that certain criteria must be met with regard to the offense including allowing particular threats to be made within the context of a political argument or a humorous anecdote. For example, in November 1994 Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina warned President Clinton that if he came to the state, “He had better have a bodyguard.” (10) The comedian Groucho Marx advocated President Nixon’s assassination and he was not charged with the offense of threatening the president. When a journalist wrote to the Justice Department complaining that Black Panther David Hilliard had threatened the president in a similar way but was charged the Justice Department said that Marx’s remarks did not constitute a true threat because he was an “alleged” comedian and not the leader of an organization which advocates killing people and overthrowing the government.” (11)

However, given the history of the level of threats each president faces, particularly since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the agency cannot afford to take chances. The law stipulates clearly that threats must be taken seriously by the Secret Service although it has been the responsibility of the courts and juries to decide which threateners need to be punished. Accordingly, the courts have recognized that threatening presidents must be dealt with severely. Those who are tried and found guilty, even though the standard defense is “I was only kidding,” have been faced with federal judges who have been forced by law to issue strong sentences. The law is severe because no one has devised a means of weighing a threat.

There can be no security measure which can avert every potential threat on the life of the president unless he is going to cease being president in the American tradition. That kind of security would require him to work in isolation, travel in secret and make public appearances only behind bulletproof glass. No American president has operated in this way nor has any serious presidential contender ever advocated he should. The symbol that would be projected to the world would seriously undermine America’s reputation as a free and democratic nation.  It would communicate to the world an America led by a president who had been intimidated by any misfit seeking ‘celebrity’ status. It would mean a presidency aloof and remote from the average citizen. 

Societies are held together by symbols and a president shaking hands in a crowd reminds people that the president is one of them. This means there will always be perpetual danger to the chief executive – from deranged would-be assassins who announce their intention beforehand to those who strike without warning.



1. United States Secret Service, http://www.secretservice.gov/faq.shtml#faq8 

2. Blaine, Gerald The Kennedy Detail Gallery Books 2010, 399

3. FOXNews.com “Report: White House Security Breached 91 Times”, 7 December 2009, www.foxnews.com

4. Spieler, Geri   Taking Aim At The President – The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot At Gerald Ford Palgrave Macmillan 2009, 217

5  Rush, George Confessions of an Ex-Secret Service Agent – The Marty Vencker Story Donald I. Fine New York 1988, 72

6. Holden, Henry To Be A Secret Service Agent   Motorbooks International 2006, 105

7. Petro, Joseph Standing Next To History – An Agent’s Life Inside The Secret Service Thomas Dunne Books 2005,131 – 132

8. Patterson, Bradley Hawkes The White House Staff: Inside The West Wing and Beyond Brookings Institution 2001 , 377

9  Deseret News, Salt Lake City, 6 September 1991, Secret Service Can Spot A Lie More Accurately Than CIA, FBI,  4

10. O’Toole, James F. Presidential Disabilty, University of Rochester Press 2001, 39

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