Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, a historical review of the United States Secret Service, famously known for its role in providing protection for the US president and other high government officials, was published in 2021. Obviously the author, Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, researched and wrote it well before that. The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol merits just a few paragraphs in the epilogue, presumably added soon after the event as the book was going to print. And of course there’s nothing about the crisis that exploded over the summer of 2022, related to missing texts and emails from the days surrounding the events of January 6.
However, Leonnig still sheds light on current events, particularly in drawing a line through multiple crises and scandals pretty much since its founding. In short, the current crisis didn’t spring fully formed out of nothing; the groundwork was laid over many years of mismanagement and politicization of what is meant to be a decidedly nonpartisan unit of government.
For readers not familiar with the organization of the US federal government, the initial purpose of the US Secret Service had nothing to do with protecting the president. It was formed in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln as a law enforcement unit of the Department of Treasury, tasked with combating the rampant counterfeiting of federal banknotes (known as “greenbacks”) during and following the Civil War. Its duties quickly mushroomed into investigating all sorts of fraud and federal crimes, essentially precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was founded in 1908. Presidential protection continued to not be one of those duties, even as another president, James Garfield, was assassinated in 1881.
Not until death threats came to light in 1894 against President Grover Cleveland did the director of the Secret Service dispatch a handful of agents to guard the president and his family — a top-secret mission completely unauthorized by Congress, who remained ignorant of the arrangement until after William McKinley was elected in 1901. When McKinley was assassinated six months later — the third president to be assassinated in 36 years — Congress finally voted to create a permanent security force to protect the president, which took effect in 1906. Protective services remained a small part of the Service’s work, with most of its resources continuing to be devoted to investigating financial crimes.
Leonnig recounts the numerous times the Secret Service agents performed truly heroic actions, during assassination attempts on Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. But she also details the many, many close calls when violent attempts nearly succeeded due to systemic failures in the agency’s organization and operation. And, of course, the most catastrophic failure of all, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
The saying is that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan, but Leonnig’s meticulous documentation and extensive sources both inside and outside of the Secret Service make it clear that the blame for the organization’s sorry state over the years has parents in many parts of government. Congress has consistently underfunded the agency while increasing its scope, leaving it badly undermanned and reliant on outdated equipment. Presidents of every political persuasion have fought against allowing the agency to do its job, chafing against the “optics” of having an obvious protection detail, and making decisions on the personnel of their protective detail based on personal or political affinity rather than ability. Pretty much every director of the agency, chosen again based on personal connections rather than acumen, has failed to instill a sense of discipline into the agents who serve under them. Again and again, agents have been caught in embarrassing situation involving drunkenness, cavorting with prostitutes in foreign countries and worse.
Again and again, the primary focus of the people in charge was in covering up the problem rather than rooting it out and punishing the agents responsible. As Julia Pierson, a short-lived director during President Obama’s administration who tried to clean things up, tells Leonnig: Nobody wants to say it … but the Secret Service has a culture problem. It’s really a culture of managers failing to want to recognize a problem and deal with it. And it’s also a culture of not wanting to report up bad news and circle the wagons instead.
I found Leonnig’s research to be extensive and wide-ranging. She spoke to current and former agents and directors, as well as presidential aides who were often among the most strenuous objectors of proper (and thus, visible) protection of their bosses. She tracked down documentation of incidents that were either never made public or whose full accounting has never been reported, including close calls from attackers at the White House itself. She writes like the journalist she is, in clear, concise language mostly devoid of in-group jargon that would deter a general audience of readers from understanding the scope of the situation.
Leonnig ends the book with no hopeful suggestion that things are likely to change anytime soon. Today, the Service remains spread dangerously thin. In addition to protecting a president and Vice President and their families, and key senior leaders, the Service also protects hundreds of foreign leaders who visit the United States every year, investigates a broad range of financial crimes, assesses and investigates violent threats …, researches the traits of school shooters …, helps local police track down missing and exploited children, and much more. … The agency hasn’t been given the money, staff, or tools to do all its jobs. This neglect creates an opening for a serious attack on our democracy.