Fail Zero: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service (2021)

This was quite an in-depth and well-researched book about the protection service. Investigative journalist Carol Leonnig has covered the Secret Service for the Washington Post for a number of years. A three-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, Leonnig obviously has many sources and contacts inside the agency, and with former agents and officers, and these relationships mined a wealth of information about the inner workings and problems within the agency.

Every significant failing of the agency or individual agents seem covered in the 450-plus page book. The men and women of the Secret Service have a critical role in the protection of the president and other high-ranking officials, securing American facilities here and abroad, and other missions like counterfeiting and combating terrorism. From a small group of agents, which predates the FBI, to an agency of thousand of employees and an annual budget exceeding $2 billion, the mission of the Service, along with the demands in a world of increasing threat capability, has become exponentially tougher. We are not really concerned with how they do it, just that they succeed.

This book is not about the day-to-day efforts of the thousands who work to accomplish that mission. It is about the politics, the resource limitations, the fractured culture, the poor judgement and sometimes being one-step behind the threat. Most of the book covers self-inflicted problems, created by agents who used poor judgement and leadership that did not hold them or others accountable, reinforcing a culture of bad behavior that often populated the news and embarrassed numerous presidents. These problems did not go away with the change of administrations, a new agency director, retirements or transfers of problem agents, or even transferring the agency from Treasury to Homeland Security.

As you read the book, you wonder how many of the same issues occur without getting fixed. You see how problems are never really fixed, with whatever changes are made, the culture of agent behavior stays the same, as does the system of reward and advancement. Superficial changes only seem to reinforce continuation of the values that feed the cycle of disfunction. Keeping it in perspective, 99.9 percent of the Service’s activities seem to get the job done and keep them out of the news. The risk of failure is high in a profession where we expect perfection. Failure is someone getting hurt or worse. The stress level for agents is naturally high, the hours long and the burnout rate significant. The valor of these men and women in plainclothes and uniform is to be respected.

The days of the Kennedy detail are long past. The Service changed after that day in Dallas, November, 1963. Bold threats to the president, at events and at the White House, continued. It is amazing, with the millions of dollars in manpower and technology, intruders have still been able to make their way into the White House. One such breech involved nine security failures, allowing a mentally disturbed person to make it to the Green Room before apprehended. Another incident involved someone taking nine shots at the White House with an assault rifle, and it was confused with either a car’s backfire or an unrelated gang event. A plane landed on the White House lawn. A couple crashed a state dinner and met Obama.

However, the section of the book that gave me pause was the behavior of the agents in 2012, who were prepping for an Obama visit to Cartagena, Colombia. This was the drunken, night of prostitutes. Excessive drinking, partying and infidelity are frequent events in the book. In any profession, this would raise eyebrows, although it happens. One might cut these folks some slack because of the tremendous pressure they endure and the long hours. Then again, when you are drinking late at night and have to do your security job in a matter of hours, your behavior can embarrass the country and the president, and you might provide a security leak – that raises the potential for failure. Some of the reviews I read called this “frat boy” behavior. Over and over, Leonnig brought it back to the agency’s ingrained culture behind these lapse, coverups and failure to learn. Not just the behavior of agents, but the lack of accountability by leadership in downplaying events and only treating symptoms, not the root problems.

I won’t even mention the Trump years.

It is easy to make judgements and label the agency broken. The book is a pretty damning expose of failed leadership in one of the most critical agencies in our government. Having said this, the book is not a hatchet-job on law enforcement. There is plenty of praise for the sacrifice and dedication of the 99.9 percent. In most jobs, mistakes happen and the world goes on, but for the Secret Service, failure is not an option.

So, do I recommend the book? Absolutely.

Leonnig is the author of I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, and A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (written with Phillip Rucker).


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