State Dinner Crashing Could Lead to Secret Service Improvements
Corrected on 12/09/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the president who Ron Kessler says was least respectful to his secret service agents. He says it was Carter.By Jessica Rettig, Washington Whispers
If there's one person who thinks the media attention on the Salahi-state dinner gate-crashing incident was a good thing, it's Ron Kessler, author of the recently In the President's Secret Service. The longtime journalist and writer of 17 other nonfiction books said that media scrutiny of the Secret Service is absolutely necessary, since corner-cutting has become the norm among the agents. The agents themselves are honorable men, all college-educated and well screened, and really would take a bullet for the Obamas, he says. But he claims that they are poorly managed and overworked, causing low morale and lots of slack in the system, such as letting unknown blondes in saris walk through security checkpoints when pressure is high.
The whole force, which protects not only the president but many of his staff, operates under a budget of $1.4 billion, about half of what it costs to build a single Stealth bomber. Kessler says that the conditions are detrimental to democracy itself.
At a dinner Monday at Washington's Teatro Goldoni, Kessler gave media representatives a preview of what's in his latest book. During his research, he was able to build up many sources, encouraging past and even current agents—more secretive than even FBI or CIA agents, he said—to open up about the people they protect.
His book gives the scoop on all the first daughters: how Jenna Bush would run through red lights to elude the agents, how Chelsea Clinton got into the most trouble of them all. How Jimmy Carter was a phony with the press—he'd carry his own (empty) luggage to seem more like the rest of America. How Lyndon B. Johnson would regularly strip naked on Air Force One. And how, long before the days of Monica Lewinsky, Johnson had his Secret Service agents install a buzzer to alert him when his wife was coming into the Oval Office. That was after she discovered him having sex with one of his aides.
As for our current president? Kessler says he's much more respectful to his agents than past presidents. (Carter was the least, he says.) He and Michelle even have special dinners for the Secret Service. The only dirt that Kessler found is that Obama still smokes from time to time, despite saying he's stopped. When asked if he thinks Obama is safe, Kessler replied, "No." He says that, especially after the party crashers, the president needs to fire Mark Sullivan, the director of the Secret Service, and at least double the agency's budget if he wants his family and staff truly out of harm's way.