Book ‘Zero Fail’ by Carol Leonnig

PDF Excerpt 'Zero Fail' by Carol Leonnig
The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service Hardcover
“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. 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light the secrets, scandals, and shortcomings that plague the agency today — from a toxic work culture to dangerously outdated...
Publisher: Random House (May 18, 2021)  Pages: 560 pages  ISBN-10: 0399589015  ISBN-13: 978-0399589010  ASIN: B095TP4P86

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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.

Book excerpt


When I began reporting on the United States Secret Service in 2012, this unique law enforcement agency was rocked by what seemed like the most humiliating scandal in its modern history: A dozen agents and officers stood accused of turning a presidential trip to a South American resort town into a kind of Vegas bachelor party, complete with heavy drinking and prostitutes. At the time, the misconduct shocked the country precisely because the men and women of the Secret Service had for so long been synonymous with tireless and selfless vigilance, a band of patriots willing to take a bullet to protect America’s democracy.

But as I reported more deeply, I learned of a more worrisome scandal than these Mad Men –style antics: This long-revered agency was not living up to its most solemn duty—to keep the president safe. Agents and officers gave me a guided tour, showing me step by step how the Secret Service was becoming a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology. With their help, I decided to dig deeper still to understand how this had happened and to chart the previous five decades of the proud Secret Service. How had it recovered from the assassination of President Kennedy, rebuilt its security force to be the envy of the world, and later begun a slow slide that had worried and angered its frontline workers?

An important note about my purpose: Some Secret Service leaders and alumni have vowed to attack my work, claiming that I seek to embarrass their venerable institution and highlight its blemishes. But it is for the Secret Service’s front line and its future that I write these hard truths. I am in awe of the agents and officers who pull together for their critical common purpose, and what they still accomplish every day under considerable strain. They toil on, often without thanks, proper support, or a proactive strategy from above. I write because they deserve better.

This book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 180 people, including current and former Secret Service agents, officers, and directors, cabinet members, advisers, and senior government officials in eight previous presidential administrations, and members of Congress and their staff, as well as other witnesses to the events described herein. I spoke with Secret Service staff who worked a heartbeat from the president and in far-flung field offices, and with the equally dedicated members of their families. Most of the people who cooperated in my research agreed to speak candidly on condition of anonymity, either to protect their careers or because they feared retaliation from the agency and alumni who seek to tamp down bad news and burnish the agency’s brand. Many shared their experiences in a background capacity, allowing me to use their information as long as I protected their identities and did not attribute details to them by name.

I am an objective journalist dedicated to sharing the truth with the public, and here I have aimed to provide an account that is as close to the full truth as I could determine based on rigorous reporting. Scenes you read in this book are reconstructed from firsthand accounts and, whenever possible, corroborated by multiple sources. They are also vetted by my review of internal government reports and memos. While there is a tendency to discount the words of anonymous sources, many of the people who spoke to me in confidence also submitted to rigorous fact checking and shared with me contemporaneous notes, calendars, and correspondence to buttress their accounts. Dialogue cannot always be exact, but it is based here on multiple people’s memories of events. In a few instances, different sources disagreed about substantive elements, and when necessary, I note that, acknowledging that different narrators can remember events differently.

This book is an outgrowth of my reporting for The Washington Post. Some of the episodes you read in Zero Fail began with stories I wrote for the newspaper, often with the help of my wise colleagues. The majority of the scenes, dialogue, and quotations are original to my book, however, and based on the extensive reporting I conducted exclusively for this project.

This historical account benefited significantly from contemporaneous news reports in The Washington Post and other publications. I also relied on a handful of compelling books covering specific periods, including some written by former agents who recognized that their experiences are indeed the stuff of history. I credit key information gleaned from those accounts, either with a direct reference in the narrative or in the endnotes.


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 major I’ll call John. Gable liked John’s no-bullshit style. He had 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. To tell their complete story, I conducted and reviewed hundreds of interviews with agents, officers, directors, lawmakers, presidents, and their staffs. 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 mind-numbing 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 any 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 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.

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