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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Reading List: Crisis of Character

Byrne, Gary J. and Grant M. Schmidt. Crisis of Character. New York: Center Street, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4555-6887-1.
After a four year enlistment in the U.S. Air Force during which he served in the Air Force Security Police in assignments domestic and abroad, then subsequent employment on the production line at a Boeing plant in Pennsylvania, Gary Byrne applied to join the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division (SSUD). Unlike the plainclothes agents who protect senior minions of the state and the gumshoes who pursue those who print worthless paper money while not employed by the government, the uniformed division provides police-like security services at the White House, the Naval Observatory (residence of the Vice President), Treasury headquarters, and diplomatic missions in the imperial citadel on the Potomac. After pre-employment screening and a boot camp-like training program, he graduated in June 1991 and received his badge, emblazoned with the words “Worthy of Trust and Confidence”. This is presumably so that people who cross the path of these pistol packing feds can take a close look at the badge to see whether it says “Worthy” or “Unworthy” and respond accordingly.

Immediately after graduation, he was assigned to the White House, where he learned the wisdom in the description of the job by his seniors, “You know what it's like to be in the Service? Go stand in a corner for four hours with a five-minute pee break and then go stand for four more hours.” (p. 22). He was initially assigned to the fence line, where he became acquainted with the rich panoply of humanity who hang out nearby, and occasionally try to jump, the barrier which divides the hoi polloi from their anointed rulers. Eventually he was assigned to positions within the White House and, during the 1992 presidential election campaign, began training for an assignment outside the Oval Office. As the campaign progressed, he was assigned to provide security at various events involving candidates Bush and Clinton.

When the Clinton administration took office in 1992, the duties of the SSUD remained the same: “You elect 'em; we protect 'em”, but it quickly became apparent that the style of the new president and his entourage was nothing like that of their predecessors. Some were thoroughly professional and other were…not. Before long, it was evident one of the greatest “challenges” officers would face was “Evergreen”: the code name for first lady Hillary Clinton. One of the most feared phrases an SSUD officer on duty outside the Oval Office could hear squawked into his ear was “Evergreen moving toward West Wing”. Mrs Clinton would, at the slightest provocation, fly into rages, hurling vitriol at all within earshot, which, with her shrill and penetrating voice, was sniper rifle range. Sometimes it wasn't just invective that took flight. Byrne recounts the story when, in 1995, the first lady beaned the Leader of the Free World with a vase. Byrne wasn't on duty at the time, but the next day he saw the pieces of the vase in a box in the White House curator's office—and the president's impressive black eye. Welcome to Clinton World.

On the job in the West Wing, Officer Byrne saw staffers and interns come and go. One intern who showed up again and again, without good reason and seemingly probing every path of access to the president, was a certain Monica Lewinsky. He perceived her as “serious trouble”. Before long, it was apparent what was going on, and Secret Service personnel approached a Clinton staffer, dancing around the details. Monica was transferred to a position outside the White House. Problem solved—but not for long: Lewinsky reappeared in the West Wing, this time as a paid presidential staffer with the requisite security clearance. Problem solved, from the perspective of the president and his mistress.

Many people on the White House staff, not just the Secret Service, knew what was transpiring, and morale and respect for the office plummeted accordingly. Byrne took a post in the section responsible for tours of the executive mansion, and then transferred to the fresh air and untainted workplace environment of the Secret Service's training centre, where his goal was to become a firearms instructor. After his White House experience, a career of straight shooting had great appeal.

On January 17, 1998, the Drudge Report broke the story of Clinton's dalliances with Lewinsky, and Byrne knew this placid phase of his life was at an end. He describes what followed as the “mud drag”, in which Byrne found himself in a Kafkaesque ordeal which pitted investigators charged with getting to the bottom of the scandal and Clinton's lies regarding it against Byrne's duty to maintain the privacy of those he was charged to protect: they don't call it the Secret Service for nothing. This experience, and the inexorable workings of Pournelle's Iron Law, made employment in the SSUD increasingly intolerable, and in 2003 the author, like hundreds of other disillusioned Secret Service officers, quit and accepted a job as an Air Marshal.

The rest of the book describes Byrne's experiences in that service which, predictably, also manifests the blundering incompetence which is the defining characteristic of the U.S. federal government. He never reveals the central secret of that provider of feel-good security theatre (at an estimated cost of US$ 200 million per arrest): the vanishingly small probability a flight has an air marshal on board.

What to make of all this? Byrne certainly saw things, and heard about many more incidents (indeed, much of the book is second-hand accounts) which reveal the character, or lack thereof, of the Clintons and the toxic environment which was the Clinton White House. While recalling that era may be painful, perhaps it may avoid living through a replay. The author comes across as rather excitable and inclined to repeat stories he's heard without verifying them. For example, while in the Air Force, stationed in Turkey, “Arriving at Murtad, I learned that AFSP [Air Force Security Police] there had caught rogue Turkish officers trying to push an American F-104 Starfighter with a loaded [sic] nuke onto the flight line so they could steal a nuke and bomb Greece.” Is this even remotely plausible? U.S. nuclear weapons stationed on bases abroad have permissive action links which prevent them from being detonated without authorisation from the U.S. command authority. And just what would those “rogue Turkish officers” expect to happen after they nuked the Parthenon? Later he writes “I knew from my Air Force days that no one would even see an AC-130 gunship in the sky—it'd be too high.” An AC-130 is big, and in combat missions it usually operates at 7000 feet or below; you can easily see and hear it. He states that “I knew that a B-17 dual-engine prop plane had once crashed into the Empire State Building on a foggy night.” Well, the B-17 was a four engine bomber, but that doesn't matter because it was actually a two engine B-25 that flew into the Manhattan landmark in 1945.

This is an occasionally interesting but flawed memoir whose take-away message for this reader was the not terribly surprising insight that what U.S. taxpayers get for the trillions they send to the crooked kakistocracy in Washington is mostly blundering, bungling, corruption, and incompetence. The only way to make it worse is to put a Clinton in charge.

Posted at November 1, 2016 21:37