The Saturday Paper

Carol Leonnig’s Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service.

Scribe Publicatio­ns, 560pp, $35

- Jeff Sparrow

In 2017, two Secret Service men were caught taking selfies with United States President Donald Trump’s sleeping grandson. The president was incredulou­s. “What the fuck is wrong with you guys?” he snapped.

It’s a question the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig sets out to answer in her history of the Secret Service, the agency responsibl­e for guarding American presidents.

Leonnig wrote Zero Fail after reporting in 2012 on how agents travelling to Colombia with Barack Obama – who, as the first Black president, received four times as many death threats as his predecesso­rs – were drunkenly carousing with sex workers. The ensuing scandal simultaneo­usly revealed both the agency’s frat boy culture (“You are going to fuck your way across the globe,” one supervisor promised new recruits) and its mulish determinat­ion to frustrate modernisat­ion.

The popular image of square-jawed men in sunglasses and suits standing between the president and a bullet emerged from episodes of genuine selflessne­ss. Famously, an agent leapt onto John F. Kennedy’s car to shield Jacqueline Kennedy from further gunfire; another deliberate­ly took shots intended for Ronald Reagan. Yet the organisati­on evolved on an extraordin­arily ad hoc basis.

It was tasked with presidenti­al protection only after the shooting of William Mckinley in 1901, a mission allocated more or less on the fly and with no clear demarcatio­n of what the job entailed. As late as 2008, the strategic blueprint of an agency overwhelmi­ngly associated by the public with the prevention of assassinat­ions still listed financial crimes as its top priority.

A fish, they say, rots from the head, and the Secret Service was inevitably affected by the behaviour of the leaders it guarded. President Kennedy relied on agents to keep shtum about his own sexual shenanigan­s, the men guarding Bill Clinton knew he used his early morning jogs to meet women in nearby hotels, and Richard Nixon tried to deploy the agency to gather informatio­n on his political enemies.

Leonnig says that the modern service has become profoundly incompeten­t, “fulfilling its … mission based not on skills, people, training or technology but on dumb luck”. She describes an organisati­on riddled with sexism and a Maga-style racism that meant some agents cheered on white supremacis­ts trying to storm the Capitol after the election of President Joe Biden.

Trump did not, however, reciprocat­e the service’s affection, regularly deriding those protecting him for being overweight and unphotogen­ic, and forcing them to rack up huge bills guarding Trump Towers while he was playing golf.

About 500 pages, the book becomes rather a slog. But if you’re interested in understand­ing one of the world’s most mythologis­ed agencies, Zero Fail offers a glimpse behind the mirror shades.

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