As many American cities endured protests, rioting, and looting in recent weeks, the White House was not immune from the phenomenon. In the recent violence, more than 50 U.S. Secret Service (USSS) personnel were injured. While known primarily for their dapperly dressed Personal Protective Detail agents, much of the agency is composed of Uniformed Division police officers.
In the wake of these revelations, I discussed with former UD officer Gary Byrne, author of two books about his life in the Secret Service, the issues of police shootings, use of military equipment by civil authorities, and some of the challenges that he believes will emerge in the trials of the killers of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery that may dispel the prevailing anti-police media frenzy.
Much of the rhetoric about “defunding the police” and the need to punish bad cops leaves out the fact that law enforcement is a profession where the personnel is trained to bring order where there is disorder. As a UD officer, Byrne was required to ensure that one of the most high stakes and stressful workplaces in the world, the Oval Office, was safe and secure for the president and his family. His experience as a USAF Security Forces police officer and air marshal presented him with many of the same challenges as those facing most police officers in other very dangerous environments.
Below is the video of our full conversation on these and other topics:
“This Is Not an Arrest”
The nuance surrounding police methods for arresting suspects has been lost amidst the wave of activism. Whereas during past flare-ups police shootings were the focus, the current one concerns hand-to-hand engagements. Asked about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being detained by Officer Derek Chauvin, Byrne offered a take that has been ignored by the media.
“The minute I saw that video, the first thing I said to myself is ‘they know each other, they have a relationship, this is not normal, this is not an arrest.’ I don’t care what the media tells you. I don’t care that they were in uniform.”
Byrne made the cautious prediction that in court it may emerge that Chauvin and Floyd were both involved in a criminal enterprise together, and therefore the public hype around the case is likely only serving to obscure the truth behind it. He was also adamant that the technique of subduing a suspect using the knee as a fulcrum is common practice.
Other commentators with law enforcement experience have objected to the new moves made to ban some types of chokeholds. Former Secret Service agent and NYPD officer Dan Bongino has contended that while the Floyd chokehold was a clear case of misconduct, other types such as the “blood chokehold” are not likely to be fatal and allow police to refrain from using more lethal means of subduing suspects.
Officer Safety or Military Occupation?
One of the big objections that Black Lives Matter and other organizations pose to police departments is their use of surplus military hardware, what is commonly called the “militarization of the police.” Byrne has a different view of what’s happening.
“When he was still president, [Barack] Obama made this comment about stopping the program between the [Department of Defense] and law enforcement where the law enforcement in the United States could get surplus DOD equipment. I don’t want the police riding around the park with kids in armored personnel carriers, but when they have to go into Watts [in Los Angeles] to serve a search warrant in a drug house, yeah, I want them to be protected.”
During the height of the rioting in late May and early June, there were rumblings that the president would deploy active-duty military personnel to quell the disturbances. Byrne is more cautious about supporting this.
“I don’t think they should use the military. I [would] let the Secret Service be the Secret Service,” he said.
Serve and Protect vs. Squawk and Project
From the time he was elected, Donald Trump has had an adversarial relationship with traditional media from cable news to newspapers like the New York Times and Boston Globe. Suddenly press briefings with White House press secretaries have gone from sedate chats under Barack Obama to frenzied shouting matches.
I asked Byrne to compare the behavior of the White House Press Corps towards Trump with what he saw under previous administrations. The strongest memories he had were under the first president he served, George H. W. Bush, and he contrasted the eulogies paid to him after his death to how the media addressed him during his time in office.
“That’s not how they treated him; they treated him like crap, they treated his wife like crap; they were always buffooning him . . . The full-court press was on against them because they were conservatives—what was a conservative at the time.”
During the Clinton years, Byrne recalled how UPI reporter Trude Feldman sequestered herself within the press lobby’s cabling room after hours, which was against White House regulations.
“You could guarantee that two days later there’d be a very favorable story out about Bill Clinton and that’s why they kind of kept her on,” he said. Feldman would later have her press pass suspended for looking through the contents of a Bush White House aide’s desk. This episode is particularly interesting given the current attempts by the White House Correspondents’ Association to suppress the access of One America News reporter Chanel Rion.
Murder Within Yards of the Law
In light of his own testimony during the Monica Lewinsky inquiries and the more recent Jeffrey Epstein saga, I asked Byrne if he had encountered sexual predators in the White House who are as yet unknown to the public. He said that he did not see anything else as egregious as those examples.
He did say, however, that during his time at the White House there had been an evening when an officer patrolling West Executive Avenue (the closest street to the West Wing, since closed to the public) discovered a fresh murder victim in a car. “So he opened the door and the person fell out and they had two bullet holes in their head. He called it in and Metropolitan [Police] showed up, and a tow truck showed up and they just took the car.”
Based on the timeframe that Byrne supplied and the location, this is consistent with the murder of Gregg Ingram (20) on October 26, 1992, who was suspected by others of being a drug informant. It occurred within 100 feet of three Secret Service posts. Perhaps it wouldn’t shock readers that given all of the other criminal behavior that has been committed over the years in the White House, Congress, and federal bureaus, it would be so easy for such a crime to happen under their noses.
. . . On Wheat, Hold the Mayo
Regarding workplace abuse and harassment, Byrne was witness to elected officials living according to a separate standard of laws and treatment of staff and employees.
“I’d say, if you walked into the veterinarian that takes care of your dog and you saw him treating his employees like this—you take your dog somewhere else.”
He invoked the infamous story, underreported by the media, of the alleged “Senator sandwich”—the drunken sexual assault by Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd on waitress Carla Gavigno in 1985 at La Brasserie restaurant in Washington, D.C. Less known is that two years later, Kennedy was caught once again in flagrante delicto with a female date.
This prompted me to ask him whether Vice President Al Gore, who had been alleged by three masseuses in 2010 to have solicited sexual favors, was simply more careful. But Byrne attributed Gore’s avoidance of consequences to luck.
He recalled an account from a Delta Airlines flight attendant who told him during his Air Marshal service after learning he was in the Secret Service: “Al Gore was eating a ham sandwich and mustard spilled on his pants, you know on his zipper. And he got up, walked up to her, grabbed her hand, and said ‘hey wipe this off’ and started rubbing her hand on his genitals. I had no reason not to believe her.”
While it is unfair to hold this alleged incident against Gore without much stronger verification, Byrne was overall fair to him, including recalling the former vice president’s family having a deep personal relationship with one of his former Secret Service colleagues, with his daughters attending and weeping at his funeral.
Guardian or Messenger?
Given his own experience being questioned by Kenneth Starr’s investigators during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I asked Byrne whether protective personnel like him should have a process for reporting sexual misconduct by their protectees. He was ambivalent about it.
“The problem is, it’s never going to be used the ways you and I are discussing it and common sense would tell you it’s intended. It’s because, whoever an officer will [witness, he would] unlikely throw himself on a sword.” Were it not for White House employee Linda Tripp reporting the Kathleen Willey incident to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, President Clinton’s inappropriate relations with Lewinsky might never have been discovered.
Tripp was also the source that leaked phone conversations with Lewinsky and the blue dress that incriminated Clinton. Had Clinton’s DNA not been on that dress, it is hard to say what might have happened to Lewinsky.
Thanks to his post-Secret Service statements denouncing the Clinton family and his 2016 book Crisis of Character, the pro-Clinton watchdog Media Matters has published no less than 10 articles attacking Byrne and the book. Their attacks on Byrne, an Air Force veteran with no known career blemishes with either the Secret Service or Air Marshals, is an interesting contrast to their ferocious defense of anti-Trump “whistleblowers” like Lt. Colonel Alex Vindman and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
It should be remembered, however, that unlike the involvement of those characters in Trump’s impeachment, Byrne’s role in the Starr inquiry was compelled by a court order and not through deliberate leaking. Moreover, his book came over a decade after he was forced to testify, leading to his eventual departure from the Secret Service.