An Insider's Look Into The Secret Service

Reports that members of the secret service brought prostitutes to their Colombian hotel room have caused a firestorm. The incident has many asking if it's reflective of the agency's culture. Host Michel Martin speaks with former secret service agent Dan Emmett about the latest allegations and his new memoir Within Arm's Reach.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it was one of those awful stories that dominated the headlines in New York and around the country for months. A young white woman was viciously attacked and nearly killed while jogging in Central Park. Five young black and Latino teenagers were arrested, convicted and sent to prison. The only problem is they were all innocent. Twenty-three years later to the day, we'll talk with Sarah Burns, author of a book and soon to be released documentary about this tragic case.

But first, to an incident that has shaken confidence in what has been arguably one of the most prestigious and highly regarded agencies in the U.S. government, the Secret Service.

Three Secret Service agents are leaving the agency after news broke that a group of agents and military personnel brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms during a recent trip to Colombia. They were part of an advance team preparing for President Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas.

Agency officials say the investigation is ongoing, but the incident has clearly damaged the image of the agency. It was a very different picture of that agency, though, that drew our next guest to want to make a career there. Dan Emmett is a former special agent for the U.S. Secret Service. Mr. Emmett details his 21 year career in his new memoir "Within Arm's Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service." And he joins us now from his home office in Alabama.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DAN EMMETT: Hey, thanks very much.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that you published this book recently and just as a measure of your feelings about your service, it is dedicated to the men and women of the United States Secret Service who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation. So I can imagine that this episode must be very painful for you.

EMMETT: Well, it certainly came as a surprise, as it did, I think, everyone. What's being alleged certainly is not a reflection of the Secret Service that I knew and it's certainly, in my mind, not a reflection of the culture of the Secret Service.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because in the days since this story surfaced, there are some who are saying that this was kind of a boys will be boys culture. And I think it's kind of worth noting that your wife is also a retired agent, and I wanted to ask you: Is that true? Do you think that there is a boys will be boys kind of attitude when particularly, I think, when folks are not on duty?

EMMETT: Well, perhaps in an earlier time. You have to remember that there were no women in the Secret Service prior to 1971. Since that time, however, hundreds of female agents have been hired, have come onboard, and of course my wife was one them. And I can't really say that you're going to be able to categorize the Secret Service as a boys club any longer. It's just really an anomaly, to be quite honest.

It's a one-time occurrence in 108 years of presidential protection. I think anyone would have to say that that's certainly not the norm.

MARTIN: Well, you talked about this three B's lecture that you got on your first day as an agent in 1983.

EMMETT: Yeah. The three B's really was just a lecture delivered by the special agent in charge. Part of a Secret Service agent's issued equipment is a government car. There is a regulation within the federal government that any misuse of a federal government vehicle is an automatic 30-day suspension without pay.

So just in order to basically warn the new agent up front, the boss would bring in the new guy or the new girl, then give them the lecture that never, under any circumstance, shall you consume alcohol - that would be the booze part - and then drive the government car. That would be the Buick part. And never, under any circumstance, put an unauthorized person in that vehicle, which would have been the broad's part.

Now, of course, that's sort of vernacular of the old days...

MARTIN: Point taken.

EMMETT: OK. I want to make it clear, too, that if you were a new guy or a new girl, you got the same lecture.

MARTIN: But I think - but I just think it's worth noting that this whole question of decorum, of not exposing yourself - that's part of day one that was...

EMMETT: It's part of it and it is day one. A lot of an agent's training is actually on-the-job training. A new agent is sort of taken aside and mentored by senior agents in that field office and their job is to indoctrinate the new guy into the ways of doing things and make sure that you don't get in trouble.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with former Secret Service agent Dan Emmett. He's just published a new memoir. It's titled "Within Arm's Length." It details his 21-year career serving the country as a Secret Service agent, and before that, I do want to mention he was also a United States Marine officer. Thank you for that service as well.

You know, you were part of the presidential protective division and you protected President George H.W. Bush, Bush 41, President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. I just want to know if any of those guys ever tried to give you the slip.

EMMETT: No. Presidents don't give you the slip. The only two people actually required to have Secret Service protection are the president and vice president and they both know that their safety depends totally on the Secret Service. They do what they want. We build the security around it so that they can live as normal a life as possible.

MARTIN: Is there any part of the job that is harder than many people might think that it is?

EMMETT: Secret Service agents on the presidential detail - you don't work the same shift all the time. You change every two weeks, so for two weeks you work the 8A to 4P shift and then you roll into midnights for two weeks and then you roll into the afternoon shift for two weeks and then you go into a two-week training phase and then back to day shift again. Given that schedule, it makes it totally impossible for the body to ever adapt to any normal sleep patterns. That's one of the reasons why agents generally don't spend more than four to five years on the detail at any one time. It's just too much stress on the body.

MARTIN: It seems like it would be really hard on family life also.

EMMETT: Well, the hard part about the family life is the travel and the time away from home. Every agent has missed birthdays, anniversaries, recitals, ball games, things that are crucially important to spouses and children. But when you're talking about protecting the president of the United States and that's your job, then that's going to have to take precedence.

MARTIN: But you also talk about, though, you know, looping back to the question that we started with, this incident in Colombia, if indeed it did occur as has been reported - where you talk about this goodbye party for this group where, as you put it, an exotic dancer hired for the occasion that tastefully plied her trade. As the night wore on, a general loss of inhibitions by many.

Now, you don't talk about any - sort of anything untoward there, but you can imagine people sort of under pressure. Is there a side of that work that kind of leads to...

EMMETT: I know what you're talking - keep in mind what I'm talking about there in the book - we're talking about the New York field office in 1986 New York during those days. Sort of lived in a world of its own, and so going away parties, which is what that happened to be, attracted a lot of people because at the time - and I believe it's still the case - an agent was expected to have an appetite for social activities, official ones, just like in the military. When an officer leaves a unit, there's a going away party and everyone's expected to attend.

And that was sort of what I was referring to in the Secret Service. We had a going away party for 16 agents and it wouldn't have been much of a party if no one showed up.

MARTIN: No. I get it. I get it. I'm just - but I'm talking about the whole exotic dancer thing and the blowing off steam aspect. Is it really a long journey there to bringing sex workers to your room in a foreign country that you think nobody's going to find out about?

EMMETT: Oh, it's a vast journey. It's an entire gulf, in fact. I can't even say that you could relate the two.

MARTIN: OK.

EMMETT: You know, what we were talking about in New York was totally legal. There was nothing illegal about it. There was nothing immoral about it. No acts of perversion occurred that evening.

MARTIN: I hear you. You know, the reason there's the word secret in the Secret Service is that you all present this image of being imperturbable, unflappable. Can you tell me any secrets? Just one?

EMMETT: The biggest secret about the Secret Service is there really are no secrets. I don't really know who came up with the cool title for the organization, but it's essentially a federal law enforcement agency that has the dual mission of investigations, and it just happens to protect the president of the United States.

MARTIN: Dan Emmett is a former Secret Service agent. His memoir, "Within Arm's Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service," was recently published, and he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Alabama.

Thanks so much for joining us and thank you again for your service.

EMMETT: You're quite welcome.

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