Bush gets firsthand look at Secret Service facility

President visits Beltsville and participates in simulated rescues

April 20, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BELTSVILLE - President Bush had a great day yesterday. He came within inches of a suitcase bomb, then barely escaped an explosion as his limousine sped through a sea of flames.

For real? Actually, not. Bush did spend part of his day at a Secret Service training facility in Beltsville, where those simulated events took place.

Aides said he came for a firsthand look at how officers train for the presidential protective detail - the elite squad that closely guards Bush's safety. He also wanted a taste of what to expect if he were ever really attacked.

The trip to the center - off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in the Maryland suburbs - has become a ritual for presidents, and Bush made the most of it.

In addition to letting agents simulate saving his life several times, the president took a turn at the firing range. Then he grabbed the wheel of a 2002 Chevrolet Camaro, practicing a maneuver called a "J-turn," which agents use to flee from a dangerous scene.

Bush's J-turn involved slamming on the brakes, popping his vehicle into reverse, backing up at 40 mph, braking again, pulling a 180-degree turn, then speeding off away from the looming danger.

Reporters were allowed to see only a few of the demonstrations - kept far away, for example, from Bush's J-turn. Aides reported back that his J-turn was flawless.

When Bush stopped briefly to speak with reporters, he seemed delighted to talk about his spin in the Camaro.

"The Secret Service has got some of the best instructors in the world," Bush said. "They took a fellow who hadn't been driving much and taught me the J-turn. It was a pretty exciting feeling."

Bush's preferred mode of transport - at least on his Crawford, Texas, ranch, where he will spend four days next week - is a pickup truck. But the president was quick to declare that "there will be no J-turns in Crawford."

To become Secret Service agents, trainees spend 12 weeks at a federal law enforcement training center in Georgia and 11 weeks at this 493-acre wooded complex. Agents who guard the president and vice president get additional training and return to this facility about every six weeks to hone their skills.

"These things need to be drilled and re-drilled all the time," said Special Agent Brian Marr, who protected President Bill Clinton for four years and Bush for one year.

Bush appeared relaxed yesterday, having shed his jacket and tie and opened his collar for a lengthy tour he seemed to enjoy. Bush typically makes much quicker stops outside Washington on Friday afternoons before heading to Camp David.

Last summer, he spent 1 1/2 hours on such a visit to Baltimore. He spent four hours in Beltsville.

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