The threat of political assassination has always been with us, hovering just offstage unsettlingly. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the US Secret Service, which also provides us with a chance to both expand our knowledge and refine our thinking. One of the cardinal sins in considering governmental entities is to see them as monolithic creatures, beings in their own right, when the reality is that they are composed of people like you and me, prone to all the admirable qualities as well as personal shortcomings that are the legacy of humanity. To airily wave your hand and critique the FBI or CIA is to see the topic from such a remove that it becomes lost in the landscape, like a monster in a Goya etching glimpsed over the top of intervening hills. This unfair simplification is especially true of security and police forces, who quietly patrol and do their work, alert for threats on the darkest nights and in the foulest weather, but only hit the newspapers when something goes wrong—as has happened, alas, for the Secret Service rather more often than not in the past few years. This should in no way blind us to the professionalism and day-to-day efforts made by these brave men and women for a century and a half.
At least since Julius Caesar learned to rue the Ides of March in 44 BC, the removal and replacement of leaders by violent means has appealed to a constant demographic of the fanatical and impatient. Kings (and Queens) of England have been plotted against and attacked, Czars have been shot at and blown up by “infernal devices,” an explosive end to Napoleon's career was attempted, and a group of disaffected French army officers took several runs at Charles de Gaul in the early 1960s, angered by his liberation of Algeria from its colonial yoke (inspiring the first thriller by Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal). And the death of one man (to be fair, an archduke) could propel Europe into a world war, as the events in Sarajevo in 1914 taught us. There is no debate as to the importance of leaders, as well as the need to protect them from the radical forces who would replace ballots with bullets in their zeal to shift the political landscape.
All the more surprising, then, to learn that the Secret Service in the United States was started as an anti-counterfeiting unit, at a time (1865) when it was estimated that up to 60% of all currency in circulation was phoney—not to mention a certain rebellious portion of the country who saw fit to print their own money. But with the death by shooting of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, not to mention attacks on both Roosevelts as well as Harry Truman, the focus and best-known of the Secret Service's specialties would be honed in a cauldron of fire, right in the public sphere, where the look of a successful operation was the fact that nothing happened; likewise, when it went sideways, such as in the amphitheater of death that is Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, the results could resonate and reverberate for decades afterwards.
Tucked inside the Treasury Department, and supposedly not part of the IC (intelligence community) that encompasses some 16 or 17 agencies and departments (depending on who is counting), the Secret Service continues to chase after funny money, most memorably in the 1990s when Xerox came out with the very latest and best color copier—which was quickly used to crank out bogus and almost perfect $20 bills by some enterprising students at Columbia (but it's hard to get the paper just right). Indeed one of the few crossovers into “Spook World” by the Secret Service occurred in the 1950s when the Russian spy Col. Rudolph Abel of the KGB rejiggered American coins so that they would come apart in two halves, allowing for the concealment of microdots within. And when you take into consideration the ease and technological sophistication of modern currency forgery, we are led to believe that the service is as busy as ever with its original mission.
But one of the great things about American Studies is the fact that it is also about us and what we think as much as it is about Dead White Men and the Doing of Mighty Deeds. This humanizing of history seems to offer one of the best ways to keep the discipline alive and encourage future generations of students and thinkers to delve into what is often dismissed as a boring subject. History is many things, but its truest students (and best professors) know that it is not boring.
What image leaps to mind when we conjure up the Secret Service? It is a man with a crew cut and dark glasses, well dressed with a tie, surrounding a political figure, and with a wire emerging from his shirt collar and going up into one ear. While the political figure is often all smiles, the security is stone-faced by default, always watching the crowd, scanning the buildings, and receiving unknown directives from the Deus ex Machina voice out of Central Control. He may speak into his sleeve now and again, in a sort of a Maxwell Smart touch, murmuring reassurances to his team and his handlers. As Professor Railton has mentioned, we see this template in Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Nicholas Cage, and a host of other cinematic depictions.
This entirely leaves to one side the plainclothes officers in the crowd, the women agents, the nuclear and biological threat units, the Counter Sniper Teams, the command and control elements, and the advance squads who go over the route several days before and do things like weld all the manhole covers to the pavement, and check that there is no extra wiring on traffic signals. Thankfully there is an entire phalanx of security workers who draw no attention to their professional efforts, and whom we cannot see or thank properly—which is just the way they would like it to be. There is also a uniformed branch of the Secret Service, such as the Private Leslie Coffelt who died protecting President Truman at Blair House in 1950 when a radical group sought to force their way in and kill him. Instead of a soft target, they ran into a professional who was willing to engage them in a gun battle—as are all the operational members of the Secret Service. Despite being shot three times and fatally wounded, Pvt. Coffelt returned fire and killed one of the attackers, while badly wounding the other, who spent 29 years in prison after he recovered.
Starting in 1984, the vast majority of the Secret Service's duties have been in the field of credit card fraud and the suppression of criminal online malfeasance, making their protective units just one part of their mission, and by no means the largest. A recent job listing required perfect Russian language skills and extensive knowledge of hackers and computer security, and could get you $180,000 a year if you can pass the stringent requirements and background check—seems pretty clear what the job entails.
While the tragedy in Dallas casts a long shadow, it is this idea that we should take forward on the anniversary of their founding: that more often than not, and against mighty odds, the Secret Service has stood quite literally in the line of fire (keep in mind Special Agent Tim McCarthy, who took a bullet meant for Ronald Reagan), and is prepared on a daily and minute-by-minute basis to oppose an attack on our elected leaders (as well as candidates), with deadly force if need be, and to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible. Recent scandals and historical failures notwithstanding, the stress and complexity of this job is difficult to overemphasize.
[Next series starts Monday!
PS. What do you think?]
Samuel adds a comment, following up Monday's post in particular:ReplyDelete
"One thing that's always stuck out in my mind: While the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963 have prompted somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 books (by one count, 750 by another—typical of this field of study) and seemingly almost as many theories, it has always struck me that one of the most peculiar episodes involves the fact that at least six people—three civilians and three law enforcement—have gone on record as saying that they met Secret Service agents (plural) in the parking lot behind the Grassy Knoll, as well as behind the Texas School Book depository, who were armed and had identification, said they were Secret Service, and warned the people who encountered them to stay away from that area.
Much like Conan Doyle's “dog who did not bark in the night,” the odd thing about this is that the Secret Service itself reported that there were no agents deployed on the ground in these places, and that indeed all of them had gone to Parkland Hospital with the stricken president, and that the head of the Dallas Secret Service office didn't get back to Dealey Plaza for a good half an hour after the shots were fired at 12:30 PM that day. Now, one of the not-so-secret parts of the Secret Service is the fact that agents coordinate their lapel pins (and perhaps other items) on any given day so as to provide local law enforcement as well as each other with a rapid recognition code. Not only did these bogus agents seem to have the right lapel pins, but they evidently also showed badges and ID to at least six people, of whom three at least (two Dallas policemen, including a sergeant, as well as a Dallas County Sheriff's Deputy) could be expected, in the wake of the president's wounding and death, to have suspicious minds and to know what they were looking at, and what they were looking for.
My personal feeling is that when (or if) all of the documents for the assassination of JFK come out, the cover-up has been so masterfully managed and the delay has been so interminable that the vast majority of Americans will read the headlines naming the killers and how it was all done, and ask “Who was Jack Kennedy?” As for my take, all I can tell you is that any story that involves Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and David Ferrie is going to be a very strange narrative, however it all shakes out. But someone supplying fake Secret Service agents with proper recognition and ID tends to lead one to more expansive speculation than not."