Election Is Crunch Time for U.S. Secret Service

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2004
To the United States Secret Service, Senator John Kerry is a tough challenge. An avid sportsman, the Democratic presidential candidate famously likes to windsurf and snowboard. That means the Secret Service agents must follow him into the water and onto the slopes.

"Those things are fairly new to us and difficult to deal with," said Brian Stafford, who directed the U.S. Secret Service from 1999 to 2003.

Ever since Democratic frontrunner Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 shortly after winning the California primary, U.S. presidential candidates have been safeguarded by the U.S. Secret Service in the 120 days before the election.

So instead of "just" having to protect the President of the United States, the Vice President, and their families, the Secret Service must now also defend the challengers and their families.

With just a week to go before the election, the candidates are all on the road, darting from one campaign stop to the next. Kerry may have put his sailboard and snowboard away, but these are busy times for the Secret Service.

Campaigns are unpredictable, and that's a word the agency doesn't like. A particularly dreaded event: unscripted movement, when a candidate makes an unannounced stop to meet and greet voters.

"Out there you definitely have an element of surprise," Stafford said, "and that could be unsettling."

Turning Point

The U.S. Secret Service was created in 1865 to combat counterfeiters. The duty to protect the President of the United States was created in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley, the third assassination in a 36-year period. Two agents were initially assigned to the White House.

The job has changed dramatically since then. The defining moment in the agency's history came in 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade drove through Dallas. Kennedy is the only President killed in office since the Secret Service began protecting the President. Today officials under protection cannot ride in open cars.

Presidential visits are planned in minute detail. During days of advance work, agents secure roads, entrances, and rooftops at the airport of a given destination to the venue the President will visit.

Agents must investigate any disturbing sign. Have any police uniforms been stolen lately in the area? Have gun sales surged? Hours before the event, bomb-sniffing dogs scour the site. As crowds or delegates file into an event, screeners carefully check each person.

On the campaign trail the advance work becomes even more demanding. Candidates may visit three different states in a single day.

Threats against the candidates increase as the election draws closer. Leading up to the 2000 election, agents saw a spike in the number of threats against the presidential candidates—partly attributed to a highly divisive political climate. This year is shaping up to be even worse.

"There is even more interest in the protectees, and that creates more challenges for the Secret Service," Stafford said. "More people are coming out to campaign events, and there is more to keep track of."


Death threats against protected government officials might be phoned in to a police department or a television station. E-mailed threats have become more common than threat letters.

"We investigate every threat that we receive," said Anthony M. Chapa, a U.S. Secret Service special agent based in Los Angeles.

At one point Chapa even received a personal death threat. The culprit was soon identified. When uniformed police showed up at his door, the letter-writer fell back and died.

President George W. Bush has visited the Los Angeles area twice this year, and Vice President Dick Cheney has been to the city a few times. But the most significant visit that Chapa has had to organize in the middle of the presidential election was the state funeral for former President Ronald Reagan.

"It was an immense undertaking," Chapa said. "No one on the job today had ever done a state funeral."

An incident involving President Reagan, incidentally, underlines the challenge that the Secret Service faces in uncontrolled environments. In 1981 John Hinckley fired six rounds at President Reagan as he exited a hotel in Washington, D.C. Special Agent Jerry Parr saved Reagan's life by covering and evacuating him.

"Agents are trained to cover and evacuate, and cover means cover with your own body," Parr said in the recent National Geographic documentary Inside the U.S. Secret Service. "It's a counter-instinctive movement. It's a muscle memory. And in a certain sense, I had been waiting for that all of my career, and it is a moment when you really think about it deeply—where history and destiny hang in the balance."

Unscripted Stops

On at least one occasion a President's decision to change plans almost caused a disaster. On September 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford had just given a speech at the California State Building in Sacramento when he decided to walk across a park where a crowd had gathered.

Shaking hands with the enthusiastic supporters, Ford noticed a woman in a red dress following him. Suddenly, she whipped out a gun. At that moment Special Agent Larry Buendorf instinctively stepped in front of Ford. Buendorf pulled the gun away and wrestled the woman to the ground and cuffed her.

The potential assassin turned out to be Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the brutal Charles Manson gang.

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