Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig
Carol Leonnig has been reporting on the Secret Service for The Washington Post for most of the last decade, bringing to light the secrets, scandals, and shortcomings that plague the agency today—from toxic work culture to dangerously outdated equipment to the deep resentment within the ranks at key agency leaders, who put protecting the agency’s once-hallowed image before fixing its flaws. But the Secret Service wasn’t always so troubled.
The Secret Service was born in 1865, in the wake of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but its story begins in earnest in 1963, with the death of John F. Kennedy. Shocked into reform by its failure to protect the president on that fateful day in Dallas, this once-sleepy agency was radically transformed into an elite, highly-trained unit that would redeem itself several times, most famously in 1981 by thwarting an assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan. But this reputation for courage and excellence would not last forever. By Barack Obama’s presidency, the once-proud Secret Service was running on fumes and beset by mistakes and alarming lapses in judgment: break-ins at the White House, a gunman firing into the windows of the residence while confused agents stood by, and a massive prostitution scandal among agents in Cartagena, to name just a few. With Donald Trump’s arrival, a series of promised reforms were cast aside, as a president disdainful of public service instead abused the Secret Service to rack up political and personal gains.
To explore these problems in the ranks, Leonnig interviewed dozens of current and former agents, government officials, and whistleblowers who put their jobs on the line to speak out about a hobbled agency that’s in desperate need of reform. “I will be forever grateful to them for risking their careers,” she writes, “not because they wanted to share tantalizing gossip about presidents and their families, but because they know that the Service is broken and needs fixing. By telling their story, they hope to revive the Service they love.”
“This is one of those books that will go down as the seminal work—the determinative work—in this field. . . . Terrifying.”—Rachel Maddow
The first definitive account of the rise and fall of the Secret Service, from the Kennedy assassination to the alarming mismanagement of the Obama and Trump years, right up to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6—by the Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of A Very Stable Genius
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Tragedy That Birthed a New Secret Service: Kennedy to Nixon (1963-1974)
Chapter 1: Protecting Lancer
Chapter 2: Tempting the Devil
Chapter 3: Three Shots in Dallas
Chapter 4: No Time to Grieve
Chapter 5: One Last Day on the Trail
Chapter 6: The President’s Spies
Part 2: Meeting the Test: Ford to Clinton (1974– 1999)
Chapter 7: A Casual Walk to Church
Chapter 8: Battening Down the Hatches
Chapter 9: Night of the Long Knives
Chapter 10: A Happy Service, a Rising Threat
Chapter 11: A Rock Star President
Chapter 12: The Intern
Part 3: Terror and Politics: The Bush Years (2000– 2007)
Chapter 13: Scrambling on 9/11
Chapter 14: “You Don’t Belong Here”
Chapter 15: “He Predicted All of It”
Part 4: The Wheels Come Off: The Obama Years (2008–2015)
Chapter 16: “He’ll Be Shot Sure as Hell”
Chapter 17: Sullivan’s Crew
Chapter 18: The Night Bullets Hit the White House
Chapter 19: “I Woke Up to a Nightmare”
Chapter 20: Sullivan’s Struggles
Chapter 21: Outed
Chapter 22: A New Sheriff in Town
Chapter 23: A Listing Ship
Chapter 24: “He’s in the House”
Part 5: Sliding Backward: The Trump Years (2016– 2021)
Chapter 25: Clancy’s Turn
Chapter 26: Chaos Candidate
Chapter 27: Taking a Hit for Trump
By Carol Leonnig
About the Author
On the evening of March 30, 1981, an eight-year-old boy in Norfolk, Virginia, sat glued to his family’s living room TV. Earlier that day, John Hinckley, Jr., had attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. But as CBS News played the scene in a slow-motion loop, the boy’s focus wasn’t on the president. It was on the man who entered the frame.
Over and over again, the boy watched in amazement as this square-jawed man in a light gray suit turned toward the gunfire and fell to the ground, clutching his stomach. By taking a bullet for the president, the newsman said, Tim McCarthy probably saved his life. At that moment, young Brad Gable (not his real name) knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up:
He would be a Secret Service agent.
Now, thirty years later, Gable had indeed fulfilled that mission. He was a member of the Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team or CAT. In the constellation of presidential protection, CAT arguably has the most dangerous assignment. When most people think of the Secret Service, they picture the suited agents who cover and evacuate the
president in moments of danger. The heavily armed CAT force has a different mission: Run toward whatever gunfire or explosion threatens the president and neutralize it. The team’s credo reflects the only two fates they believe await any attacker who crosses them: “Dead or Arrested.”
Gable was proud of the career he had chosen. Among his colleagues, he was respected for the pure patriotism driving him and for his intense focus on operational details. So why, in the late summer of 2012, as he sat in a restaurant near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, did he suddenly feel like throwing up?
Gable and his fellow agents had come to a mom-and-pop restaurant with a group of Delta Force members who were overseeing the CAT team’s annual training. Gable’s squad had drilled for almost a week with these steely Special Forces operators, playing out mock assassination attempts and blind attacks to learn how to shield themselves and their buddies in close-quarters combat.
After a dinner of ribs, steaks, and wings, Gable sat back for some beers and small talk with one of 9/11’s faceless heroes, a Delta Force sergeant major I’ll call John. Gable liked John’s no-bullshit style. He had a real battlefield experience—two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, he’d been part of the raid on Mullah Omar’s Kandahar compound, but he didn’t crow about it—which instantly earned Gable’s trust and respect.
On his second beer, Gable felt loose enough to ask John a question that had been on his mind: “After teaching so many operators and law enforcement agents, what do you think of the Secret Service’s overall readiness?” The sergeant-major demurred, so Gable pressed him.
“Seriously, how would you rate us?”
“Look,” John said. “I feel sorry for you guys. The Service has really let you down. You’ll never be able to stop a real attack.”
It wasn’t the answer Gable had hoped for, and as he listened to John dissect the Service’s outdated equipment and spotty training, his stomach grew queasy. Deep down, he knew how ill-equipped and out of date the Secret Service was, but hearing it articulated by someone he respected made it impossible to deny. His mind drifted to all the times he had seen the Service drop the ball—most recently, a 2010 trip to Mumbai with President Obama, in which his unit had narrowly avoided a major international incident after nearly killing an unidentified gunman who turned out to be a local police officer. Scenarios like these were dress rehearsals for a real attack on the president, and in his five years with CAT, he had seen the Service fail so many of them.
Gable was now faced with a brutal truth: Increasingly, the Secret Service was fulfilling its Zero Fail mission-based not on its skills, people, training, or technology, but on dumb luck. How long would it be before that luck ran out? Gable wasn’t alone. He knew other dedicated agents who felt a growing sense of disillusionment, especially with the agency’s leadership. But fear of repercussions had kept them silent. Until the stakes got too high.
I’VE BEEN COVERING the Secret Service since 2012, starting with my reporting on “Hookergate,” the scandal in which agents brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms while making arrangements for President Obama’s visit to Cartagena, Colombia—and which gave me my first glimpse into the Service’s deeper institutional problems. In the years since, however, many agents have expressed concerns to me about the agency’s ability to guard the presidents, their families, and other key government officials. They describe an organization stretched too thin, drowning in new missions, and fraught with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust between rank-and-file agents and leadership.
These agents have rejected the Service’s code of silence in favor of the higher good of sounding an alarm. They came to me hoping that an investigative reporter at The Washington Post could bring attention to their concerns, shame the leaders who had failed them and help right the ship. I conducted and reviewed hundreds of interviews with agents, officers, directors, lawmakers, presidents, and their staff to tell their complete story. I read through thousands of documents, including presidential archives as well as internal Secret Service reports, investigation files, and security reviews that have never been shared publicly. What I discovered was a rich, complicated story—of bravery and venality, heroism and incompetence—that America cannot and should not turn away from.
This book isn’t an academic history. My intent here is to focus on the rise and entirely avoidable fall of the Secret Service over the last sixty years, from Kennedy to Trump. We sometimes forget that this proud, largely invisible force stands between the president and all attackers. By protecting the president, they protect democracy. And while the agency once stood for dedication and perfection in the face of impossible odds, it now finds itself in a state of unprecedented peril.
In these pages, I attempt to paint the portrait of an agency marked by a unique set of contradictions: An ever-shifting and murky mission coupled with impossible expectations to meet it. A rigid management structure that inspires discipline while also inciting resentment and rebellion. An organization whose performance standards are far higher—and whose morale and personal conduct standards are, at times, far lower than those of any other federal agency. A working battalion whose members often sacrifice a normal life and push themselves to exhaustion to deliver on a near-impossible mission, slaving for some leaders who look after themselves first and fail to make the bold choices that could help support their corps.
My goal is to offer a behind-the-scenes look at an organization saddled with a never-ending struggle to improve its reputation, boost its resources, and raise its morale. In perhaps the ultimate irony, I present an agency that seems to improve only in the wake of the thing it is sworn to prevent: tragedy.
In the last six decades, the Secret Service has grown from three hundred agents and a $5 million budget to seven thousand agents, officers, and other staff and a budget of over $2.2 billion. Its mission has expanded as well. Instead of protecting one leader, the agency now shields his extended family, many of his deputies, and even his political opponents. It focuses not just on stopping a bullet but also on blocking a drone carrying poison gas, a cyberattack throttling the nation’s energy grid, and any threat to a stadium of spectators watching the Super Bowl. This kind of mission growth could prove challenging to any organization. But the Service hasn’t just suffered growing pains. By its own staff’s measures, the agency’s standards and capacity to fulfill its core assignment have been slipping for years, raising several crucial questions:
How did the Secret Service go from an elite, hardworking band of patriots vowing to do whatever it takes to protect future presidents in the wake of JFK’s assassination, to a frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence?
How did the Service go from a close-knit group that prided itself on a nonpartisan “the people elect ’em, we protect ’em” attitude, to an organization that is used by presidents for craven political means and feels it must acquiesce to stay in favor?
And finally, how did the Service go from an institution that inspired and captured the imagination of an eight-year-old boy in Norfolk, Virginia, to an organization that can’t hire people fast enough to fill its departures and that for three years running had recently been ranked as the most hated place to work in the federal government?
Zero Fail chronicles this deterioration across decades, leadership changes, and game-changing world events. But while the agency has suffered many embarrassing failures along the way, it must be noted that no president has been killed on its watch since John F. Kennedy. Many committed men and women who stand on rope lines and scour crowds looking for the subtlest signs of danger have been tested repeatedly, and at least by their own sense of duty, they have proved themselves true to their motto: “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” Sadly, their organization can’t stop an assassin with stubborn devotion alone.
Writing this book helped me see how the Service’s decline has been decades in the making, but it also helped me appreciate the many agents who keep their rounds despite the disorder and haphazard management swirling around them. Every day, these public servants, whom Eisenhower dubbed “soldiers out of uniform,” brave cold and wet at the White House gates and endure mindnumbing boredom guarding convention center stairwells and hotel hallways. They sweat through their undershirts and socks standing for hours at back-to-back campaign rallies. They maintain for hours, for days, the kind of hypervigilance that would exhaust a normal person after just ten minutes.
I also came to appreciate how the Secret Service was born out of a fundamental tension that lies at the heart of American democracy: symbolism versus security. The weight that rests on their shoulders became palpable for me when some agents recounted their introduction to presidential protection from a standout leader of President Clinton’s detail. Special agent in charge Larry Cockell had begun their tutelage by sharing the obituary for the agent who drove President Kennedy’s limousine the day he was killed, and who had initially slowed the car at the sound of the first shot. The opening line of the death notice called out the agent’s role in a tragedy that would define his life.
“You are now part of an agency responsible for the life of the president and the stability of our democracy,” Cockell told them, the agents recalled. “This is what failure looks like. I can’t succeed unless you succeed. Unless we all pull together, we all fail. I expect you to be focused and invested in this and accountable at all times, and if you think there is an obstacle to you doing this, then I ask that you leave the detail today.”
America wants to project the image of being free and open, “of the people.” As recently as 1881, sixteen years after Lincoln’s assassination and fresh off James Garfield’s, the country rejected the idea of a presidential security force because it smacked of “royals” hiding behind an imperial guard. Despite the inherent dangers, Bill Clinton and JFK continually subverted their detail agents to get closer to their adoring fans—the latter famously ditching his detail to go for a swim at a public beach in California. Reagan’s handlers engaged in a heated debate with the Service over the optics of using metal detectors at the president’s first public appearance after the attempt on his life. Even internally, agents have nearly come to blows over such issues, including whether long guns on the White House roof would create the impression that the leader of the free world lives in a military compound.
A rare success in marrying these two competing impulses came at Barack Obama’s victory speech on the night of November 4, 2008, when more than 71 million prime-time TV viewers watched a joyous, almost spontaneous-looking event in Chicago’s Grant Park celebrating the election of America’s first Black president. Invisible to the cameras: the fact that the airspace had been declared a no-fly zone, and that two enormous sheets of bulletproof glass flanked the president-elect to thwart would-be snipers. In both practical and symbolic terms, the scene communicated everything you need to know about what the Service is routinely expected to achieve.
Zero Fail touches on this loftier story, but the history it recounts is ultimately more personal. This book is about the current and former agents, officers, and administrative staff in this secretive fraternity who chose to share their stories with me. I will be forever grateful to them for risking their careers—not because they wanted to share tantalizing gossip about presidents and their families, but because they know that the Service is broken and needs fixing. By telling their story, they hope to revive the Service they love. They deserve a public commitment to rebuilding their agency so they’re not left toiling in constant fear of failure, not to mention the constant risk of personal harm.
America, its presidents, and its citizens have taken the Secret Service for granted in the past, too often with tragic results.
About the author:
CAROL LEONNIG is a national investigative reporter at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2000. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the number-one New York Times bestseller A Very Stable Genius, Leonnig is also an on-air contributor to NBC News and MSNBC. A Maryland native, she lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and their children.
Carol Leonnig is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and veteran investigative reporter at the Washington Post.
She is the author of “A Very Stable Genius”, a jaw-dropping insiders’ account of Donald Trump’s presidency, with her co-author Philip Rucker, to be published Jan. 21, 2020.
In her work as a journalist, Leonnig has uncovered politicians’ misconduct, revealed striking examples of government corruption, abuse, and incompetence, and covered four presidential administrations.
A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and two daughters.
Reviews of the customers about the ebook:
In this book, Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, collects her extensive research about the U.S. Secret Service; highlighting the history of the organization, and the current problems it faces. Leonnig conducted hours of interviews with over 180 people, most of whom only agreed to talk under the condition of anonymity, in order to gather as much information as possible. These former and current agents and other related sources have decided to shine a light on the operational difficulties, leadership issues, controversies, and other problems the Service faces; so that hopefully improvements can be made in the future.
The book is divided into 5 parts: The Kennedy to Nixon years, The Ford to Clinton years, the Bush years, the Obama years, and finally the Trump years. Each part has several chapters that document the major crises and changes that occurred during those presidencies; and many unreported incidents. The chapters contain real accounts of events that took place, albeit with the agent’s names usually changed. I found the first few chapters particularly interesting, as they explain the origin of the Secret Service after the Lincoln assassination, and later the challenges of protecting a controversial President Kennedy.
Much of the later chapters though, focus mostly on the many controversies and mistakes the Service has made, and the times the agency failed to adequately perform its assigned tasks. This will probably upset some people, as the book seems to focus on exposing as many failures as possible, while not spending much time highlighting the successful operations. There also doesn’t seem to be much of an effort to propose possible solutions to these problems, although perhaps that isn’t the goal of the book exactly. There are quite a few stories of incompetence or misuse of resources, that I’m sure the Secret Service would rather the public not be made aware of.
Overall, this book was very interesting, and I enjoyed the historical information the most. The later chapters feel more like a “Secret Failures of the Secret Service” report; somewhat surprising and troubling information indeed. I’m not sure if this will actually lead to any institutional changes, but if you are interested in these kinds of details, then you will probably enjoy this book.
I’m just not buying what some of your other “reviewers” have written…..but not surprising. So I’ve created another…..just to bring the overall “rating” up. Don’t read something because of someone else’s opinion.
An alarming but I am sure a factual account of our secret service. Extremism apparently runs deep within this once well-thought body of agents. This is yet another death blow to our once secure democracy.
- Elizabeth McGarr:
Extremely readable and fast-paced, this account is filled with fascinating details about JKF’s intimate trysts, Clinton’s reckless behavior with a “young intern,” Trump’s mulishly flagrant disregard of the science of contagion (thereby putting agents at risk), the inexplicable and inexcusable failure to afford Biden with appropriate security immediately following the 2020 election, and much more.
Zero Fail is the result of years of serious scholarship and superlative reporting by one of the most well-respected, experienced journalists of our time. Carol Leonnig interviewed scores of Secret Service agents, spoke with some 180 different people on the inside of government, wrote for the Washington Post where she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism and has covered the US Secret Service since 2012. She is not a political operative but is rather a consummate journalist who seeks to tell the truth about the men and women of an agency tasked with protecting those holding the highest leadership roles and, by extension, the survival of our democracy itself.
No organization is flawless, and the Secret Service is far from that. Leonnig shines a bright light on some of the most egregious failures of the service; she notes those things that can and must be fixed. She also highlights the heroism, selflessness, and instances when agents stood between the presidency and disaster. These stories hold your interest and keep you turning the pages long past a reasonable bedtime. This journalist does a masterful job highlighting the best and worst aspects of a venerable institution. It is a genuine pleasure to read, a first-rate education about a hitherto shadowy subject, and a title certainly destined to become a political classic. I’d very highly recommend this topical tome for anyone interested in politics, policy, or presidents…and that should be all of us.
This author is amazing! Her books are gold. Best Secret Service authors: Carol Leonnig, Vincent Palamara, and Dan Emmett.
I read most of this last night and seven other people have held on to it so I’ll return it and finish later. What I read made me sick enough. I bought Secret Service dogs and realized there were problems with SS then. (SS Secret Service)
Anyway, the Trump years were very expensive for us taxpayers and the SS was not very efficient. Unmasking during the pandemic was a big setback with many agents ill or in quarantine. Many SS members are Republicans and some are huge Trump supporters. Biden needed his old detail from Obama’s admin back. I read an interview with Michelle O where she stated how fearful she was for her family and I now see why. Continued SS protection for the Obamas may not be as thorough as necessary.
- Marcie Brubaker:
This book is a horrifying rundown over the years of an organization we have long admired. Hopefully, we can recover.