TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

Man in Black, Blue or Gray
Written by Denis Faye

(May 10, 2012) 

WHERE TO LOOK

While former agent Kevin Billings might not feel accuracy is job one when writing a script about the Secret Service, it never hurts to know your facts, so spend a few hours perusing the Secret Service’s Web site. There, you’ll get the straight lowdown on who these people are and what they do. You can also follow them on Twitter @SecretService. 

If you want to get a little more into the human side, have a read of Dan Emmett’s autobiographical book, Within Arm’s Length: The Extraordinary Life and Career of a Special Agent in the United States Secret Service. It’s an inside look into not only the professional life of an agent, but his personal life as a husband and father. “It really depicts an agent’s life very well,” claims Kevin. 

Conversely, if you want an outsider’s view, check out this recent article in The Atlantic. 

Finally, a little tip based on my own experience. Active agents tend to be rather tightlipped about their jobs. Again, they don’t technically need to be secret, but the group’s culture tends to insular, so if you’re looking to talk to a living, breathing agent, your best bet is to seek out a retired one. 

Ironically, there’s nothing secret about the United States Secret Service. Yet, it’s probably the federal government’s most misunderstood law enforcement agency. Created by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the Service is a lot more than a bunch of guys standing around in black suits and sunglasses. Not only are they in charge of security for countless politicians and visiting dignitaries in addition to POTUS (which, unfortunately for Lincoln, they didn’t start doing until President McKinley’s assassination in 1901), but they have multiple investigative duties that include counterfeiting, fraud, and child pornography.

Furthermore, according to former agent Kevin J. Billings, their suits aren’t always black – they can wear blue or dark gray as well.

Of course, Kevin’s knowledge of the agency goes much deeper than fashion. As a 21-year veteran, he served on both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s details. He was a member of the Secret Service Counter Assault Team and served on the open water rescue team for both presidents.

He has also served as a technical advisor for the film The Sentinel [Screenplay by George Nolfi], the mini-series The Path to 9/11 [Written by Cyrus Nowrasteh], as well as the Discovery Channel show I (Almost) Got Away With It.

Today, Kevin is Managing Director of Strategic Risk Management, a company that provides business intelligence and specialized security to “corporate and high-net worth clients.” If you’re anything like me, your idea of risk management is deciding whether to grab your iPhone or your MacBook first when you spill coffee on your desk, so you probably have a lot to learn from reading Kevin’s interview with Technically Speaking.

What does Hollywood get right about the Secret Service?

What Hollywood gets right about the Secret Service is the fact that they contact the Secret Service for accurate consulting. I’ve been with firemen or people from the news watching movies about their industries, and they say, “Oh, that’d never happen, that’d never happen.” Well, everybody does that. And granted, they want to try and make something look better than it might be… Maybe life, it’s better or more exciting than it actually is, but for the most part, most of the films that I’ve seen of the Secret Service, the consultants have done a very good job.

What do they get wrong?

Mostly the lifestyle, at least as far as the Secret Service is concerned. Most of the movies that are out there, that I’ve seen, depict the agents as having a very exciting, dramatic lifestyle. Obviously if they actually filmed a Secret Service agent working, most people would probably fall asleep. It’s about one percent excitement and 99 percent standing around and wondering what time it is. So that’s probably the only thing I could really state that they get wrong. But when you’re working on time constraints and you want to sell a movie, seeing some guy standing in a stairwell on a midnight shift is probably not what you want to watch.

Yeah, probably not. And don’t they transport you around in cargo planes?

Oh yeah. That’s some of the other glamorous work that we do. They transport us over in C-141s and C5As and Galaxies. Normally there are no windows; you’re sitting, well, they call them airline seats but they’re not actually, they’re like a padded folding metal chair. Pretty much if you bolt that to the ground that’s what you’re sitting on anywhere from 12 to 18 hours on the stupid thing, up to 10 people across with a row down the middle. So if you’re at the “window seat,” or basically against the fuselage of the plane, not only is it very cold coming off of the fuselage, but if you’ve got to get up to go to the bathroom you’ve got to climb over four other people who are probably sleeping. No, it’s not very glamorous. Air Force One is a much better way to go some place but the entire group doesn’t get to fly on Air Force One.

Can you explain what the Secret Service does besides guarding the president?

Sure. We’re sort of a unique federal agency to all the others, based on the fact that we have a dual role. We have the protection role, and then we also have the investigation role. The Secret Service was first signed into law in 1865 by President Lincoln. Being the first federal investigative agency of the United States, it was brought on because counterfeiting was so prolific at that time, right after the Civil War. Oddly enough, on the day that he signed it into law in 1865, that very night he happened to be at Ford’s Theater when he was killed.

Really?

Yeah, very same day. Unfortunately – or fortunately for us, I guess – It wasn’t one of the Secret Service duties at the time, protecting the president. We were just an investigative agency at the time.

What about the people in the field offices, what do they do in addition to helping with the president?

In general, if they’re not working protection then they’re working investigation, which consists mostly of counterfeit investigations and fraud investigations, meaning bank fraud and computer fraud. They also have a very robust IT group in the Secret Service now that investigates a lot of the child pornography and child predators.

That stuff started percolating up, at least as far as the Secret Service is concerned, in the early 2000s, and I retired at the end of 2003. So I didn’t really see as much of it, but they’ve got fusion centers and things like that all over the country, and they’re pretty much the premier group if you’re looking for child predators and child pornography. They’re the ones that are investigating it now and it’s a pretty big piece. It was initially brought up or developed for the bank fraud that the Secret Service has joint jurisdiction on with the FBI, and so they really put a lot of emphasis on the IT training for our people to be able to catch these guys, and they’re catching people all over the world.

And they run a lot of joint task forces, right?

Correct. Fusion centers. The IT centers have got all different federal agencies and local, state agencies that all work together in these centers and there are many cities around the country.

Getting back to Tinseltown, what are some of your favorite movies about Secret Service or featuring Secret Service agents?

Obviously The Sentinel, which was spectacular [laughs].

Besides that, there really aren’t a heck of a lot of them. For me the original was To Live and Die in L.A [Screenplay by William Friedkin & Gerald Petievich]. I liked that even though the agents weren’t necessarily portrayed as good people, not all of them, but I liked it for the fact that it did show the dual role the Secret Service agents played. One day they could be protecting the president, the next day they’re in their jeans out chasing bad guys across the street on a counterfeit case.

I liked In the Line of Fire [Written by Jeff Maguire]. I’m a Clint Eastwood fan but the main reason I liked it was it was probably the first movie made that the Secret Service had granted the use of consultants for. So it was very well made and portrayed by the actors and had a very good group of agents and former agents that were working. They were the guys that worked on Reagan’s detail; in fact the guys who worked on Reagan’s detail the day he was shot, so they had a really good background in protection, and I’m sure they really helped them out a lot.

Are there any movies that you’re not a particularly big fan of?

As much as I like Kevin Costner, as far as the Secret Service portion of it is concerned, I didn’t like The Bodyguard [Written by Lawrence Kasdan]. The diving in front of the bullet activity and things like that, I thought that was a little silly. But it was a good movie in general and luckily there wasn’t a whole lot of Secret Service work or thought put into it. I just didn’t like the scenes with him diving across the stage in front of the bullet. That’s generally not how it works.

How does it work?

The Secret Service is not trained to jump, to dive in front of bullet. The Secret Service is trained in what’s called “arm’s reach.” To break it down in a nutshell, it’s who are you closer to? Are you closer to the gunman or are you closer to the protectee? If you’re closer to the protectee your job is to cover the protectee and evacuate them. If you’re closer to the person with the gun, your job is to disarm the threat, so it’s either reach for the gun or reach for the protectee. And obviously in doing so if you’re covering a protectee and get them out of there, if you cover them then your body is covering theirs too and so that’s where the bullet’s going to hit.

And secondarily, if you’re within arm’s reach of the gun and you reach for the weapon, there’s still a good chance you might be killed.

What would you like to see in a movie involving Secret Service just once?

Recently we had an author who claimed that he had received the blessing of the Secret Service to write this book and claimed it was going to be about the agents themselves and the families and how life in the Secret Service affects them and how they move around and what life is like for agents, when in reality it was just a typical “Tell me what dirt you know about the presidents and their families” book. So I would love for them to show something about the Secret Service from an agent’s point of view, to show how it affects the family, how the families are uprooted. Generally, every four to six years you’re moved to a different division, to a different city. From protection to Investigation and back again and each time you get a promotion you’re ending up moving and just show the stress of that.

You could make a great movie about the life of a Secret Service agent and that has a lot of exciting adventures in it but it also can show how it’s affected their life personally along the way.

So you’d like to see more of the human side of it, but you’d rather they not dig the dirt regarding the inside lives of dignitaries.

Exactly. It’s kind of twofold. I don’t like that they try and find out dirt on the former presidents, vice presidents, and their families, but there are also the Discovery Channel things that try to find out the thickness of the glass on the presidential limousine and what type of weapons they use and how much of a weapon do you need if you wanted to take out the limousine – crazy stuff like that.

How do you feel about all the clichés? Like the guys in the black suits and all that.

There are so many clichés, but to be honest with you, if you’re on a protective detail, well, when I was new on the job, they said, “If you’re working protection you should be wearing a blue, black, or dark gray suit.”

Oh, so that is true.

There’s nothing in the manual that says that, but try showing up on a protective assignment in a tan suit or something like that. It’s always kind of just been an unwritten rule that you don’t do that. For that matter it’s always been tied shoes too, which always kind of made me shake my head.

No loafers? Why is that?

According to lore, many of the bosses have always said, “We want tied shoes so that they don’t come off when you’re running next to the limousine or when you’re working the president.” Now my thought was, and being kind of a – and most of my bosses will concur with this — being kind of the jerk, my question to one of the bosses was, “Well, if my shoe comes off because I’m wearing loafers I can just slip it back on real easy. Your [tied] shoe comes off, you’ve got to kneel down to tie it.”

Good point. What did he say?

He turned and walked away.

For a writer embarking on a script involving the Secret Service, what is your one big piece of advice?

Find a good consultant. You can write a story and come up with an idea for a story and write it and then have the consultants there that can fill in the blanks.

On the other hand I look at things that probably wouldn’t happen in a film and say, “Well hell, the general public doesn’t really know anyway so what does it really matter?” The only people that do know are all the law enforcement guys that are out there, so it all depends. To me, I think that if you want to write something that’s accurate you need a good consultant.

But you’re saying you don’t think to tell a good story it’s all that important to be spot on accurate?

You can have a good premise, and it’s not going to matter whether the guy’s a Secret Service agent, FBI agent, CIA, whatever. You can have a team of 12 FBI agents protecting the president and probably not a lot of people are going to give a damn if it’s a good, exciting movie.

The only people that will are the Secret Service agents out there. And conversely, you can have the Secret Service investigating the FBI on some violations that they did and if it’s a well-written movie and has some great actors in it, nobody’s going to care even though it could never happen.

And that doesn’t bother you when you see a movie like that?

Oh no, it does bother me. I’m just saying the general population it wouldn’t bother and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how much do the director, producer, and writer want accuracy as opposed to just a good story? What’s the trade off? If you get a consultant there, is that worth the cost of trying to make it accurate? I don’t know. That’s for them to call.