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14 Secrets of Secret Service Agents

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On the day he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of the United States Secret Service, a government agency tasked with protecting the integrity of the nation’s currency. In 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress extended their duties to involve the protection of the president.

As the name implies, the organization is extremely guarded when it comes to discussing details of their methods, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely in the dark. We spoke with former agent Tim Wood, along with journalists Ronald Kessler and Jeffrey Robinson (all authors of books about the Secret Service), to learn more about how the agency insulates the leader of the free world from harm, the sometimes surprisingly low-tech anti-threat tactics they use, and how the Oval Office can safely order a pizza.

1. THEY TRAVEL WITH BAGS OF THE PRESIDENT’S BLOOD.

Although thousands of agents are employed by the Secret Service, only a small number are assigned to the Presidential Protection Division (PPD), the branch of the agency responsible for guarding the lives of the commander in chief and their family. According to Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of former agent Joseph Petro’s autobiography Standing Next to History, the division is methodical about making sure agents are trained in “ten-minute medicine,” or doing everything possible to keep the president alive until he or she can receive specialized medical attention in the event of an emergency.

“When they travel, they’re never more than 10 minutes away from a trauma center,” Robinson says. “They’ll have an agent posted at the hospital who knows the operating room staff.” Additionally, the travel group will have bags of blood in the president’s motorcade in the event a transfusion is needed.

The focus on emergency medicine training helped save Ronald Reagan's life during a 1981 assassination attempt. After being shot, Reagan thought he had suffered only a minor rib injury, and the plan was to take him to the White House, considered the safest place in the capital. But in the president's limo, Agent Jerry Parr noticed frothy red blood coming from Reagan's mouth—a sign he had been bleeding from the lungs. The decision was quickly made to reroute Reagan to the hospital, where doctors discovered Reagan had been shot in the lung. The president endured several hours of surgery and post-operative complications before making a complete recovery.

2. THEY MAKE SURE THE PRESIDENT IS NEVER ALONE. EVEN IN THE BATHROOM.

Being on protective detail means following the president wherever he or she might go. This includes the bathroom, the doctor’s office, or anywhere that might benefit from a little privacy. “The president is never alone,” Robinson says. “When Reagan was in office, Joe was there for his prostate exams and colonoscopies. He was always in the room with a gun. And if he thought the doctor was any kind of threat, he would’ve shot him.”

3. THEY INTERVIEW POTENTIAL ASSASSINS.

While making a threat against the president’s life is never a good idea, it’s up to agents to determine whether you should be warned, committed for psychiatric evaluation, or charged with a Class E felony. According to 23-year Secret Service veteran Tim Wood, author of Criminals and Presidents: The Adventures of a Secret Service Agent, this is called “protective intelligence.” Any time someone makes a suggestion of wanting to cause the president harm, every aspect of their lives will be investigated. “We interview friends, neighbors, associates, employees,” Wood says. “The question is, ‘Is this person serious?’” When Wood interviewed a man who had made repeated calls threatening Reagan’s life, he determined the subject had an alcohol problem and possible mental illness, sparing him serious prosecution.

4. THEY CAN BE ORDERED TO PROTECT ANYONE.

Presidents and vice-presidents don’t have the ability to refuse Secret Service supervision once they take office, although some can switch to private security detail once they’ve served their term.

However, they do have a say in whether someone else can be assigned Secret Service protection. According to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President’s Secret Service, agents started to escort some White House staff members following the September 11 attacks at the behest of George W. Bush. “It’s a fairly recent development,” Kessler says. Among other duties, agents can accompany children to school, standing outside classrooms until the lesson is over.

5. THEY FILM THE PRESIDENT IN CASE SOMETHING HAPPENS.

For all of the controversy it created, the Zapruder film of the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination was invaluable in helping the Secret Service understand how quickly a situation can spin out of control. To this day, agents still screen the footage as part of their training. According to Kessler, they also film current presidential motorcades in the event they need to review an attack. “Recently, someone threw something at Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago,” Kessler says. “They were able to locate the person thanks to video.”

6. THE FOOD IS UNDER CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE.

“If you send the president a Christmas ham, it’ll never get to him,” Robinson says. Every bite of food presented to the president is prepared under the watchful eye of the Secret Service, who stare down White House chefs to make sure no one is flavoring with arsenic or rat poison. When the president travels, Navy stewards come along to prepare food. And when the president has a photo-op at a diner and orders food, it’s not likely he’s going to eat it.

Surprisingly, it’s still possible to just order a pizza. “If the president wants a pizza, they’ll have it delivered to the Naval Observatory or another address nearby,” Robinson says. “Since the [pizzeria] doesn’t know who it’s for, it reduces the danger.”

7. HOTELS HATE THEM.

When the president travels, the Secret Service kicks into overdrive, scouting hotel destinations in an attempt to control a foreign environment. Hotel employees who will be in contact with the government entourage are subject to background checks. “If anyone has a criminal history, the hotel manager will ask them not to come in that day,” Kessler says. The Secret Service will also take over entire floors above and below the president and commandeer elevators for their own private use, which can disrupt a hotel’s business. They’ll even keep an elevator repairman on standby in the event the POTUS gets stuck.

8. THEY HAVE A WAY OF TRACKING YOU, AND IT’S IN YOUR DESK DRAWER RIGHT NOW.

When the White House receives troubling or threatening hand-written correspondence, agents have a way of narrowing down their search for subjects. Kessler says that the Secret Service, working in tandem with ink manufacturers, maintains a vast database of distinctive “tags” in the ink that can be identified and narrowed to the brand and where in the country it’s sold. “It’s similar to the way explosives manufacturers identify material,” he says.

9. “WORKING THE ROPE” IS THE MOST NERVE-WRACKING PART OF THE JOB.

According to Wood, no other detail duty is quite as stressful as dealing with impromptu presidential greetings with private citizens standing behind a roped-off area. “That’s where agents earn their money,” he says. “You have no idea what an uncontrolled crowd might do.” To minimize threats, agents are constantly scanning for hands stuffed in pockets or other signs of suspicious activity. Their omnipresent sunglasses? Those are for crowd-scanning without tipping off potential suspects, and to ward off any liquids or other projectiles thrown in their direction.

10. THEY TEND TO PICK UP NEW HOBBIES.

Because the president is never without an escort, Secret Service agents are often forced to learn new hobbies. Wood didn’t have any experience riding horses when he accompanied Bill Clinton for rides during his two terms. “Fortunately, Clinton was not a master horseman like Reagan, so it was just a simple trail ride,” Wood says. But Clinton was a well-conditioned jogger, which forced agents to be in great shape in order to be able to keep up. “You’re doing your job while running for five miles,” Wood says.

11. THERE’S NO SWORN OATH TO DIE FOR THE PRESIDENT.

Despite Hollywood’s depictions of life in the Service, agents never have to explicitly “swear” to give up their life in order to protect the president. “They never utter that sentence,” Kessler says. “It’s understood that something like that could happen, but they take every possible step to avoid it.”

12. THEIR LIMO IS STRAIGHT OUT OF A JAMES BOND MOVIE.

When the president is on the road, he’s typically in a very heavily armored limousine that’s flat-tire-proof, bulletproof, and driven by agents with extensive experience in defensive driving. According to Wood, agents are trained to perform a 180-degree turn in the event of a road block or explosion. Both the limo and other vehicles used by the president are serviced by a Secret Service garage, which makes modifications to commercial vehicles to make them more attack-resistant.

13. THEY GET SHOT WITH FAKE BULLETS.

In order to prepare for any eventuality, agents undergo regular and rigorous scenario training, with an agent acting as a stand-in for the president while other agents try to navigate threats. To make the simulation effective, Wood says that the training incorporates non-lethal "marking rounds," or plastic bullets that leave a colored trace and a superficial sting. “Instead of a blank going off, you’d know if you’ve been hit or where you hit your target,” he says.

14. THEY DON’T CARRY BAGS, SO DON’T ASK.

The quickest way to annoy a Secret Service agent? Ask them to carry your luggage or grocery bags. “[Vice-President] Walter Mondale once asked an agent to pick up laundry,” Robinson says. “They don’t do that.”

All images courtesy of Getty/iStock.

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The Tiny Government Office That Will Replace Your Ripped, Burned, and Chewed-Up Cash
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iStock

Cash is designed to be sturdier than regular paper, but it isn't indestructible. A fire, flood, or hungry pet could be all it takes to reduce your emergency savings to a ruined heap of scraps. But just because a bank will no longer accept that money doesn't mean it's worthless. As Great Big Story explains in the video below, there's an entire division of the U.S. Department of Treasury dedicated to reimbursing people for damaged cash.

The Mutilated Currency Division processes roughly 23,000 cases a year, paying out about $40 million annually to replace bills that are no longer fit for circulation. It accepts money in any condition—the only requirement is that the claim must include at least 51 percent of the original note, to avoid reimbursing someone twice for the same bill.

After someone submits a claim for damaged cash, the team examines the bills with scalpels, tweezers, knives, or whatever other tools are necessary to go through the stacks and verify just how much money is there. Bills arrive in varying states: Some have been clumped together and petrified by water, charred in ovens, or chewed up by insects. In one infamous case, a farmer sent in the whole stomach of the cow that had swallowed his wallet.

Once the office processes the claim, it issues a reimbursement check for that amount, and the unusable money is officially taken out of circulation. But the U.S. government finds other uses for that ruined cash. For example, over 4 tons of old currency are mulched at a farm in Delaware every day.

You can watch the full video from Great Big Story below to learn more.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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John Moore/Getty Images
14 Secrets of TSA Agents
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John Moore/Getty Images

Last year, more than 964 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.

1. CATS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS.

Maine coon cat stepping out of a carrier
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According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”

2. THEY HAVE CODE WORDS FOR ATTRACTIVE (AND ANNOYING) PASSENGERS.

Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”

3. FANCY HAIRDOS ARE A SECURITY RISK.

Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”

4. THEY LIKE YOU BETTER WHEN YOU’RE EXHAUSTED.

A tired passenger in an airport
iStock

“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)

5. THEY SOMETIMES LIE ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK.

Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”

6. CHEESE CAN LOOK JUST LIKE A BOMB.

Airport security personnel monitoring an x-ray monitor
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”

7. YOUR GENDER CAN CONFUSE THEM.

When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.

8. THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING ALL DAY.

TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.

9. OPTING OUT GETS THEM ANNOYED.

Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.”

10. THEY’RE WRITING ON YOUR TICKET FOR TWO REASONS.

A TSA agent looking at a traveller's documents
John Moore/Getty Images

Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”

11. “CREDIBLE THREATS” STRESS THEM OUT.

According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.”

12. THEY HATE WHEN YOU ASK THEM TO CHANGE GLOVES.

“The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down,” Harrington says,” because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face.”

13. IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET FIRED.

TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”

14. THEY DON’T GET AIRPORT PERKS.

As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

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