Hillary Clinton’s desire to appear more approachable put her in danger during her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, says a former Secret Service officer who helped protect her.
Dan Bongino, who went on to run for the U.S. House and Senate after leaving the Secret Service in 2011, worked in the Secret Service’s Melville, Long Island, New York, office during his first year with the agency, in 1999.
That was the year Clinton launched her campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, and her travels frequently took her to Nassau and Suffolk counties, which were covered by the Melville office.
The Melville office had a small staff, so Bongino was forced to do considerable protective advance work for Clinton.
“It was clear from the start of her U.S. Senate campaign that our lives in the Melville office were going to be made miserable by this campaign,” Bongino writes in his new book “Protecting the President: An Inside Account of the Troubled Secret Service in an Era of Evolving Threats.”
He explains one of the Secret Service’s main duties is to maintain a strong working relationship with local law enforcement officials, both for investigative and protection purposes. Without cooperation from local police, it would be difficult for the Secret Service to do its job. Local police provide physical protection manpower on the outer and middle rings of security, and they understand the local landscape and threat environment in their jurisdiction better than the visiting agents.
However, Clinton and her campaign made things tough.
“Maintaining good relationships with local law enforcement was exceedingly difficult when dealing with the Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate campaign because Mrs. Clinton’s staff would constantly complain about the visible presence of the local police at the sites she visited,” Bongino writes. “I obviously couldn’t read Hillary’s mind at the time, but in my conversations with her staff, it appeared that they wanted the uniformed police officers hidden and tucked away, to give Hillary the appearance of approachability.”
In her drive for “approachability,” Clinton also turned down the typical limousine package in favor of what Bongino called a “ghastly looking brown van,” referred to as the “Scooby Doo” van. It was a nightmare for the Secret Service agents in the Melville office.
“First, the use of a stock van built for family travel, not tactical efficiency, caused enormous headaches for the Secret Service armorers, who had to ensure that the vehicle met certain standards for bullet resistance,” Bongino explains.
“Additionally, the van was extremely difficult to operate in any tactical driving scenario because of its height and weight. If the van was fired at from multiple angles, it would be a challenge to rapidly speed off and navigate turns at high speeds. In short, the Secret Service management team should have shut the decision to use the van down early and negotiated a better solution, but politics and ‘approachability’ got in the way.”
What’s more, local law-enforcement officers in Nassau and Suffolk counties didn’t appreciate the Clinton campaign telling them to keep themselves hidden. Bongino didn’t blame them for being upset. He knew they were hardworking professionals who wanted to keep the first lady safe during her visits to their jurisdictions, but the campaign’s attitude was making it hard for them to do their jobs.
“But, it didn’t appear that the Clinton Senate campaign cared about any of this,” Bongino writes. “If they saw uniformed police officers in areas they didn’t approve of, and they thought the ‘optics’ were bad and that it made Mrs. Clinton look unapproachable, they would raise the issue with the Secret Service supervisor responsible for her protective shift, who would then bring the issue to my boss in the Melville office. Rather than focusing on securing the life of Mrs. Clinton, this charade caused us all to waste inordinate amounts of time politely requesting that uniformed police officers move slightly to the left, or slightly to the right, so that Mrs. Clinton couldn’t see them.”
This was a disgrace, according to Bongino.
“The Secret Service works with local law enforcement to create a safe and secure scene for both the protectee and the people attending the protectee’s event,” he writes. “Asking local police departments to hide themselves like misbehaving children, in the corner of a classroom, was humiliating for agents like me, who were police officers before joining the Secret Service. And more important, it was humiliating to the hardworking cops just doing their jobs and helping the Secret Service accomplish the mission.”
Politicians may wish to appear more approachable, but Bongino warned that terrorists planning a tactical assault with heavy weapons and explosives are also looking for approachable protectees.
The former agent suspects some Secret Service managers complied with Clinton’s dangerous security requests because they wanted the first lady to like them, and they wanted to avoid starting a controversy that could damage their careers. Clinton was never shy about railing against anything she didn’t like, and Bongino suspects the agents assigned to her wanted to avoid a rebuke in the “Scooby Doo van” after an unwanted police sighting during a campaign stop.
Therefore, although members of Clinton’s Presidential Protective Division (PPD) detail knew the local police were sick of being told to hide themselves from the cameras and the first lady, they would nevertheless ask the Melville Secret Service office to make the request to move the local cops out of sight.
“Mrs. Clinton’s security arrangements, because of this recurrent conflict with the local police, became more of a lesson in conflict avoidance rather than physical security,” Bongino revealed. “It’s a miracle nothing happened to her because of this, but due to the evolving threat of a tactical assault from committed terror groups, there are no guarantees in the future if protection becomes about the optics of ‘approachability’ rather than sound protection tactics.
“Local law enforcement, in uniform or not, are a Secret Service agent’s best friend, and they are their first line of defense against the ever-present threat of a tactical assault. Secret Service management, in the future, is going to have to resist the urge to allow protectees such as Hillary Clinton the opportunity to treat them as political pawns to be shuffled around as they see fit, while compromising both their safety and that of the Secret Service.”