Soul-searching at the Secret Service
A day after President Bush was nearly struck in the head by flying footwear at a Baghdad news conference, U.S. Secret Service officials faced questions Monday about how an Iraqi television reporter was able to hurl not one but two shoes at the president without the agents responsible for protecting him being able to move into the line of fire.
Secret Service officials said they were reviewing the episode, including the procedures used by agents guarding Bush during his unannounced visit to Baghdad. But officials said they believed the agents reacted appropriately in a situation where all those present in the room had already undergone intensive security screening.
Nonetheless, some security experts and former agents who reviewed tapes of the assault predicted that it would lead to minor changes to improve procedures for safeguarding the president.
“They will probably make a decision to have more close-in agents, right around the president,” said Ronald T. Williams, a former Secret Service agent. “They will make some adjustments, so if a shoe is thrown again, they can intercept it, or at least give the president cover.”
Secret Service officials said their agents began moving as soon as the first shoe was thrown. Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the agency, said the videos show agents quickly moving in from the sides of the room.
“We think the response was appropriate,” he said. “You can see agents reacting after the first shoe was thrown.”
Everyone at the news conference, Donovan said, had already passed through several layers of security and had been searched multiple times. But he added that the agency would nevertheless examine its performance.
“We are our own harshest critics,” he said. “This will be reviewed to see if there is anything we can do differently. We always strive to make ourselves better as an agency.”
Patrick J. Lennon, another former agent, said that after he saw the video, his impression was that the agents seemed to react more slowly than he would have expected.
“I thought they would have responded after the first shoe,” Lennon said.
The agents guarding Bush were not able to immediately get in front of him because they were positioned at the side of the room, not beside him, as they would be if he was working a rope line, Lennon said. Luckily, he added, Bush moved quickly.
“Thank God, Bush apparently played a little dodge ball when he was younger,” said Lennon, who heads a security consulting firm in Rockville, Md. “His reflexes are quick. I was proud of him.”
Joseph J. Funk, also a former agent, said that when he first watched a tape of the incident, he thought the agents should have reacted more quickly, at least fast enough to stop the second shoe.
But, as he studied the video further, he changed his mind.
“In a perfect world, they would have been on the guy before he threw the first shoe,” Funk said. “But after looking at the tapes, [the throws] were pretty quick, and they were one right after the other. I doubt any security force or any law enforcement could have reacted in time to stop the second shoe.”
After the second shoe was thrown, the agents tackled the assailant, shoving him to the ground.
Funk and other former agents praised the president’s detail for not overreacting or shooting the shoe thrower.
Unless a hurled object has the potential to kill a president, agents will move to physically restrain the assailant rather than use deadly force, said Funk, whose Severna Park, Md., firm, U.S. Safety & Security, helped provide protection to President-elect Barack Obama early in the campaign.
“Given the fact you are in a crowded room, the collateral damage would have been extensive,” Funk said.
The Baghdad incident also illustrates other Secret Service training protocols. Tape of it shows how agents moved toward the president and other parts of the room as several tackled the Iraqi reporter, aided by other journalists and Iraqi security personnel. Williams, who now runs Talon Executive Services in Fountain Valley, said agents are trained that a first attacker could stage a diversion by hurling something -- like a shoe -- creating a clear, lethal shot for a second attacker.
“It is like playing zone defense,” Williams said. “Not all agents are going to rush that guy. Because they are trained to watch for diversion.”
Iraqi reporters attending the news conference were searched at least three times before entering, and their credentials had been screened. Both White House and Iraqi officials believe having bodyguards hovering around the president would have sent the wrong message.
“It would give the appearance that things are the same as Saddam’s reign,” Funk said.
Former agents acknowledged that it was nonetheless embarrassing for the agency that the reporter was able to throw two shoes at Bush. But they noted that ultimately there was no real threat.
“Would the service view this as embarrassing? Yes. Will they take steps in the future? Probably. But these kind of things do happen,” Williams said.
“If he came in and was able to secret a weapon -- then we have a real, real problem,” he said.