Secret Service facing barrage of criticism after president ducked shoes

December 16, 2008|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - In movies, Secret Service agents leap in front of bullets aimed at the commander in chief. But in Baghdad, agents failed to block not one, but two shoes hurled at President George W. Bush during a weekend news conference.

So yesterday, a day after Bush dodged the flying footwear, Secret Service officials faced the inevitable questions about how an angry television reporter was able to throw two shoes before agents moved into the line of fire.

Secret Service officials said they are reviewing the incident and the procedures used by agents guarding the president during his surprise visit to Baghdad. But officials defended the agents' actions, saying that they reacted appropriately in a situation in which all of those present had undergone intensive security screenings.

Nonetheless, former agents and security experts who reviewed video of the incident predicted that it would lead to changes to improve procedures for safeguarding the president.

"They will probably make a decision to have more close-in agents, right around the president," said Ronald T. Williams, a former Secret Service agent. "They will make some adjustments, so if a shoe is thrown again, they can intercept it or at least give the president cover."

Secret Service officials said their agents began moving as soon as the first shoe was thrown. Ed Donovan, an agency spokesman, said videos show agents moving quickly from the sides of the room.

"We think the response was appropriate," he said. "You can see agents reacting after the first shoe was thrown."

Everyone at the news conference had passed through several layers of security and had been searched multiple times, Donovan said. But he added that the agency will examine its performance.

"We are our own harshest critics," he said. "This will be reviewed to see if there is anything we can do differently. We always strive to make ourselves better as an agency."

Patrick J. Lennon, a former agent, said that from the video, the agents seemed to react more slowly then he would have expected.

"I thought they would have responded after the first shoe," Lennon said.

The Secret Service agents guarding Bush were not able to get in front of him immediately because they were posted at the sides of the room, not by his side, as they would have been if he were working a rope line, Lennon said. Luckily, he added, the president moved quickly.

"Thank God, Bush apparently played a little dodge ball when he was younger," said Lennon, president of Lennon Security Corp., a consulting firm in Rockville. "His reflexes are quick. I was proud of him."

Joseph J. Funk, a former Secret Service agent, said that when he first watched a tape of the incident, he thought the agents should have reacted more rapidly, at least fast enough to stop the second shoe. But as he studied it further, he changed his mind.

"In a perfect world, they would have been on the guy before he threw the first shoe," Funk said. "But after looking at the tapes, [the throws] were pretty quick and they were one right after the other. I doubt any security force or any law enforcement could have reacted in time to stop the second shoe."

After the second shoe was thrown, agents tackled the reporter, shoving him to the ground.

Funk and other former agents praised the president's detail for not overreacting or shooting the reporter.

Unless a hurled object has the potential to kill a president, agents will move to physically restrain the person rather than using deadly force, said Funk, whose Severna Park firm, U.S. Safety and Security, helped provide protection to Sen. Barack Obama early in the presidential campaign.

"Given the fact you are in a crowded room, the collateral damage would have been extensive," Funk said.

The Baghdad incident illustrates other Secret Service training protocols. Tapes show how agents move toward the president and to other parts of the room, as several tackle the Iraqi reporter. Williams, who now runs Talon Executive Services in Fountain Valley, Calif., said agents are trained to know that a first attacker could stage a diversion by hurling something - such as a shoe - creating a clear, lethal shot for a second attacker.

"It is like playing zone defense," Williams said. "Not all agents are going to rush that guy. Because they are trained to watch for diversion."

Iraqi reporters attending the Baghdad news conference were searched at least three times beforehand, and their credentials had been screened. White House and Iraqi officials believe that having bodyguards hovering around the president would have sent the wrong message.

"It would give the appearance that things are the same" as during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Funk said.

Former agents acknowledged that it is embarrassing to the Secret Service that the reporter was able to throw two shoes at Bush. But they noted that ultimately there was no real threat.

"Would the service view this as an embarrassing? Yes. Will they take steps in the future? Probably. But these kind of things do happen," Williams said. "If he

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