Jeffrey Robinson Talks with Neal Conan, host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Tuesday April 17.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan. The U.S. Secret Service has a long and storied history. These days, agents are in the news for alleged misconduct in Colombia in advance of a presidential visit there. The agency was actually established in 1865 to combat counterfeiting, a huge problem in the years following the Civil War.
It wasn’t until President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 that the agency took up its second and now its most pressing mission: to protect the president. We’d like to hear from you about – if you have questions about the current scandal and what it says about the culture and duties of the men and women of the Secret Service, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now, Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of “Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service.” He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
JEFFREY ROBINSON: Neal, it’s always a pleasure. How are you?
CONAN: I’m good, thanks. And as you hear about this scandal in Cartagena, is this something that you regard as a one-off, something anomalous, or is this something that’s part of a pattern?
ROBINSON: Unlike Mr. Kessler, I do not see the sky falling in – Chicken Little, Chicken Little. No, no, no, no. This has all got to be put into perspective. First of all, it should not be politicized. This is not a political event. It had nothing to do with the president. At no time whatsoever was presidential security breached. There was no threat directly or indirectly to presidential security.
These 11 guys, you know, when you get 11 guys together with a lot of testosterone, things happen. It happens in the Secret Service, it happens with the New York Yankees…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROBINSON: It happens in fraternities. I suspect it would happen in the House of Representatives.
CONAN: And yet let me be the first to say that the Yankees and the fraternities are not tasked to protect the president of the United States…
ROBINSON: You’re absolutely right about that, but this…
CONAN: As Mr. Kessler said, one of these could have been a double agent. There could have been blackmail. There could have been a bug.
ROBINSON: Yeah, right. And Elvis is alive, and the Earth is flat. Listen, these guys were supplementary. They were in support of the operation. When the president travels, there are 800 to 1,000 people who travel with him, including a huge contingent of Secret Service who have been on the ground for a long time.
As I understand it, some of these guys were uniformed officers. Those are the people who handle magnetrons, you know, the metal detectors. They handle the dogs. They handle support services. They were not part of the official advance team who had been there for 10 days. They had nothing to do with presidential protection directly.
The PPD, the Presidential Protective Division, is in charge of the president, and they completely and totally control the environment in which he functions. These guys, I find it very difficult to believe that they could have done anything even if one of them had been blackmailed and wanted to. That said, businessmen who go to Colombia, and I wrote a big book about drug trafficking down there, the Secret Service, anybody going to Colombia puts themselves in a certain amount of risk when you start fooling around with prostitutes. That’s true.
But to draw a line from that personal risk all the way back to a possible assassination attempt on the president of the United States is stretching one’s imagination a little too much.
CONAN: So members of the Secret Service but not members of the, if you will, the A-Team.
ROBINSON: Well, listen, the Secret Service are a great bunch of men and women. They really are. They are very, very special people. The A-Team, that Presidential Protection Division or the Vice Presidential Protection Division, which is exactly the same, are really the cream of the crop, and you don’t get there, it’s not a direct route, just because you join the Secret Service.
Most of your work, in fact for the first five years, usually you’re in an office somewhere, a field office, doing counterfeit investigation. So, you know, presidential protection is a secondary job for most Secret Service people. They may stand post when the president comes to town. These guys were in a secondary situation. They were not directly involved with the security of the president.
And again, to politicize it, I think, is really unfortunate. Is it an embarrassment? Yes. And I’ll tell you something about that: When you get to know Secret Service agents, there is a certain amount of pride that reminds me of the Marines. Now, I was in the military back in the ’60s, I’m sorry that I’m that old, and I did have a top secret clearance, and I didn’t know that that entitled you to go to prostitutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, we had – interesting, we had an email about that from David, who said: The man who said prostitution is part of military culture is wrong. The people in my unit…
ROBINSON: It wasn’t part of mine.
CONAN: If I could just finish this email: The people in my unit who I trust with my life are the ones who are loyal and devout to their family. Saying it’s part of our culture is degrading to the military and the American people. So yeah.
ROBINSON: Yeah, well, it’s also personally degrading, but that said, you’ve got a lot of testosterone with these people, and we know about the wheels-up parties. That’s one thing. Before it happens is an embarrassment to the agency. And as I was saying…
CONAN: Well, the other phrase, we heard you mention wheels-up parties, and that’s after the president leaves.
ROBINSON: That’s after the president leaves.
CONAN: But we also heard about wheels up, rings off.
ROBINSON: Listen, you know what? If married guys want to fool around like that, they have to answer to their wives or their own conscience. That has nothing to do with me or presidential security. What can I tell you? No, it’s not unique.
CONAN: Does it have to do with a culture of a Secret Service that is, you mentioned testosterone, very male-dominated?
ROBINSON: Well, it’s not. There are many, many women agents. And, you know, the president’s got women protection. Does it have to do with the culture of the Secret Service? No, I think it has to do with the culture of 28-year-old guys who are in a – you know, who have played football and are athletic and are macho and are – share that kind of pride.
And what I wanted to say about the pride that they share with the Marines, that’s what’s so upsetting about this, especially to the agents that I’ve spoken to since this broke. They are all saying how dare they, not because of any threat to the president but because of the damage they’ve done to the reputation of the Secret Service, and these guys hold that very highly.
CONAN: Let’s get to a caller. This is Robert, Robert with us from San Antonio. Robert, are you there?
CONAN: Robert, you’re on the air, go ahead please.
ROBERT: Yes, sir, this is Robert. I’ve done 22 years in the Army and I still work now as a Department of the Army civilian. But all military and civilians, they go down range, especially in this hemisphere, they have to undergo training, specific training on what are the do’s and don’ts. And one of the things that we are chartered with is not supporting activities that propagate the exploitation of woman and children. And that’s mandatory training.
So we know we’re not supposed to engage in those activities.
CONAN: I think he’s right, Jeffrey Robinson. I’m sure these Secret Service agents were trained that way too. You mentioned that culture of the elite, like the Marines. These are very special people in a very special job. Are – after a while, given that mentality, do they come to believe the rules don’t apply to me?
ROBINSON: No, because they’re also team players. This is – you know, these are not individuals. These are team players, which is one of the reasons, for example, that the Secret Service really likes football players, because they understand that team mentality. And like the Marines going into an operation, you are very dependent on the guy next to you. So the rules do apply because they are so highly trained, especially when you’re dealing with presidential protection, where concentration is so vital.
The rules do apply because the result of a failure is inacceptable. I mean, they – Joe Petro, the guy I wrote about in “Standing Next to History,” wrote the book with – Joe, who’s my old college buddy, would often say that our job is to bring the president home safely, and there is no acceptable alternative to that.
CONAN: Robert, if you’re still there, could you tell us why you think people might come to disregard that training?
ROBERT: Well, I think it’s not a norm. You always have your occasions, once in a while, that somebody breaks the rules. And when they do that, obviously, and we find out about it, and we investigate, and we take action, because you know, first of all, it’s designed for your safety and the safety of others, and of course you don’t want to compromise the mission. So all of those three factors are the basic premise behind it.
And you know, so if it happens – again, it doesn’t happen as a norm; you’re always going to have a renegade or two, or people tend to find themselves, come together, and they form a clique perhaps, and they do engage in such activity. And it’s a matter of time before they get caught.
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
ROBINSON: Neal, Neal, can I add something to what Ron Kessler said about the – Joe Biden throwing out the first pitch?
ROBINSON: He’s being slightly, slightly misleading and doing that on purpose, I fear. When the president or the vice president goes to throw out the first pitch – and there’s a story in “Standing Next to History” of Joe taking Reagan to throw out the first pitch in Baltimore – first of all, the visit is usually unannounced. Even the Orioles, when Joe took Reagan out there, did not know he was coming. He had – they gave him an hour’s notice.
People filling up in the ballpark don’t have to go through a magnetron because they have no idea that the president’s going to be there. In fact, the whole visit was decided two hours before opening. Joe took Reagan there, and because of the way – he didn’t want Reagan out on the pitching mound, that was too exposed. So he threw the first pitch from the third-base coach’s box.
But a really interesting story is, as you know, the Secret Service controls the president’s food. At one point, Reagan turned to the owner of the Baltimore Orioles and said: How would you like a hot dog? Which threw Joe into a slight turmoil because they don’t really want him eating just anything.
So he said to one of his guys up in the stands, he says: Go find a really old hotdog salesman, you know, one of the old guys, and bring him down here. And they brought him down into the dugout, figuring the chances of this guy having poisoned a hotdog on the odd shot that he would give it to the president was pretty remote. The neat part of it was that Reagan bought three hotdogs, pulled out a $5 bill and handed it to the guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: He hadn’t been to a ballpark…
ROBINSON: And the guy…
CONAN: …for quite a while.
ROBINSON: That’s right. And the guy said I’m sorry, Mr. President. They’re 3.50 each. Reagan didn’t have more than five bucks in his pocket. He had specifically put the five bucks to buy the hotdog, because he knew he was going to do that.
ROBINSON: So Michael Deaver slipped him the money for the hotdog…
ROBINSON: …very discreetly. He paid it.
CONAN: You talk about poison.
ROBINSON: And that’s…
CONAN: You talk about poison. I’m not – no comment on the Camden Yards hotdogs. So…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Let’s see if we can get Teresa on the line, Teresa with us from Jacksonville.
TERESA: Thank you for having me, Mr. Conan. It’s a real honor.
CONAN: Thank you.
TERESA: I am taking offense to the boys-will-be-boys testosterone excuse, because I know many outstanding men in their 20s and 30s that would never dream of sleeping with prostitutes and blaming it on their hormones. And my father was in the Navy, and he would never dream of sleeping with prostitutes or doing anything of this sort, because I think as human beings – man or woman – we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard and really demonstrate character, especially if you’re going to be in the Secret Service or any other branch of the military. We can’t just blame it on a culture or blame it on hormones.
CONAN: Jeffrey Robinson.
ROBINSON: I absolutely agree with you that we have to be responsible for ourselves, and that’s what happens. These men were not responsible for themselves, and they deserve what they’re getting. They’re all probably looking for work as of right now. They certainly will never rise higher in the Secret Service. But I don’t honestly think that they, at any time, exposed the president to any sort of real danger. I think it was simply boys being boys, and I’m afraid boys will be boys. I know, because I was one. I still am, I guess.
TERESA: Well, I appreciate the response, but keep in mind I don’t get to say girls will be girls. You know, I don’t blame PMS or my hormones on my behavior. So I really think it’s time that we hold men to a higher standard. And thank you for…
ROBINSON: Well, that’s what – and they’re being held to a higher standard. They’re probably going to be fired.
CONAN: What’s the – thank you very much for the call, Teresa.
TERESA: Thank you.
CONAN: And what’s the process now? I mean, this investigation is underway. It’s an internal investigation run by the Secret Service itself. Obviously, Congress has great interest. But what’s going to happen?
ROBINSON: Well, these men are going to have to face those men who were insulted by this incident. I mean, they have a very rough road to go, because with the pride that they have – and it’s facing senior Secret Service officers, who are very proud of the agency – and the damage that they’ve done, I don’t think they stand much of a chance of keeping their jobs.
CONAN: We’re talking with Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of “Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service,” co-authored with Joseph Petro, a longtime friend, and former assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Presidential Protection Division. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Ken’s on the line, calling from Chicago.
CONAN: Ken, you’re on the air, Ken. Go ahead.
KEN: Yes. I also take offense at Jeffrey’s comments. I have a top secret security clearance working for a different agency. I went through the whole process to become a special agent, and I was offered a position. Part of the interview process, you sit down with several agents in a panel interview.
CONAN: Offered a position in the Secret Service?
KEN: That’s correct, as a special agent.
CONAN: OK, go ahead.
KEN: Part of the interview process, you sit down with the panel and interview with several agents. And I was very dismayed. My superior academic, my character, my leadership qualities were less of a concern to them as if I could participate with the boys’ club, with the wheels-up-type parties, and so forth.
CONAN: Really? And how did that get communicated to you?
KEN: The question – you sit in a room with several agents for several hours, and there’s many questions that they ask you. And that was the – not only the impression, but it was part of the conversation among them.
CONAN: Can you recall any specifics?
KEN: I won’t give them, sorry.
CONAN: I’m not asking for people’s names. I mean, it’s – what kind of questions were you asked that led you to that conclusion?
KEN: (unintelligible) as your guest is suggesting, that they compare it to football parties and some of the things you would see in inappropriate college parties, and so forth.
CONAN: So frat boys?
CONAN: All right. Jeffrey Robinson.
ROBINSON: Was it an invitation to party, or was it a will-you-party kind of question?
KEN: It was will you party.
ROBINSON: That’s right. And I suspect if you said, yes, I will, you wouldn’t have gotten the job.
KEN: I said it wasn’t something that I thought I felt comfortable with. And I told them what interest that I had in the agency.
ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, listen, I can’t speak for that interview. I wasn’t there. I don’t know, you know, the people involved or what happened. But I do know that that – the kind of behavior that those 11 men exhibited in Cartagena is not tolerated.
CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call. This email from Ruby: The president should not just say I’ll be angry. It should be: These men protect my wife and children and should be fired outright if they have so little respect for the law, my office and for women, most of all. On the other hand – I’m sure we’re getting a lot of emails like that. On the other hand, the president needs to await the results of an investigation, no?
ROBINSON: Well, I would suspect that what he said in public had nothing to do with what he said in private. And I would honestly believe that he let it be known he was furious that this happened, all the more so because it overshadowed whatever was being done in Cartagena.
CONAN: This email is from Wendy: I think this issue is a classic case of hubris. As Wikipedia reminds us, hubris means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality, an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. How is this any different than the type of thinking that led to the whole Wall Street fiasco?
ROBINSON: Hubris, perhaps. Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean that hubris is pandemic within the Secret Service. It may very well have been these 11 guys at that time who felt – yeah, it doesn’t apply to me, or isn’t this fun, or we’re away from home and let’s party. Again, the agents I know, especially the ones who have been with PPD and are with PPD, would never ever, ever tolerate this kind of behavior.
CONAN: And you mentioned earlier they like to hire people who played football at…
CONAN: …various levels. And I was particularly interested: Why?
ROBINSON: Because football players are used to working in patterns and in plays. And if you watch the president, if you watch him work a rope line, for example, you’ll see that there are positions taken up by the agents around him. There’s always one in front of him. There’s one behind him. One’s got his hand on – usually his hand on the president’s back. They’re there. And then the agents around are working the crowd, looking for hands and eyes. And they will say that. If they see someone in the crowd and they can’t see their eyes, they’ll say, may we see your hands? May we see your hands, please?
They’re looking for the guy on a perfectly sunny day who’s wearing a heavy raincoat. People, when they see the president, regardless of political bent, are happy. I mean, the guy’s a rock star. All presidents are rock stars. You want to shake his hand. You want to wave. You want to get some recognition from him. They’re looking for the person who is not reacting that way to the president. And they’re all in a position. They like football players, because football players understand how to play a position.
CONAN: Jeffrey Robinson, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
ROBINSON: Anytime. It’s always a pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: The author of more than 25 books, including “Standing Next to History,” Jeffrey Robinson, joined us from his home – excuse me – from his office in New York.
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