The atmosphere at a presidential function or a campaign rally is electric. People are excited, cheering, smiling, and generally, very happy and enthusiastic. With tens of thousands in attendance, Secret Service agents are on high alert looking for behavior that could spell threat, taking no chances and will always err on the side of caution.
For example, it is abnormal when a person attending this type of event displays none of the event’s emotions, but instead appears sullen and expressionless, as if his mind is somewhere else, totally unaffected by the noise and fanfare. Secret Service Agents hone in on this lack of emotion.
Another attention getter is the person, who after standing in line for hours amongst a crowd of enthusiastic rally goers, waiting for the event doors to open, suddenly turns and leaves, after noticing that up ahead are checkpoints and magnetometers. This raises obvious concerns and is the equivalent of the driver who makes a u-turn and drives away from a DUI check point.
Then there is the person who attends an event wearing heavy, bulky, clothing, such as a coat, when it’s 100 degrees out. These strange and disconcerting observances take an agent to a hyper-alert level. Obviously, not everyone fitting these descriptions is a would-be assassin. Often, there are perfectly logical explanations for these types of behaviors. Other times, it may be that the person just isn’t blessed with an abundance of common sense. Case in point:
In October of 2000, at a rally just one week before the presidential election, the CA convention center was warm with a capacity crowd of 8000 ecstatic rally goers, frantically cheering and waving Bush/Cheney signs. They were apparently oblivious to the fact that the republican presidential nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush and his two speaking guests, Arizona Senator John McCain and actor Chuck Norris were not scheduled to arrive for another 45 minutes.
As the Site Agent, it was my event. I was responsible for the development of the security operations plan which, amongst other things, included determining the number of agents (Post Standers) needed, briefing them on their assignments, and posting them. I also had a large contingency of uniformed police officers assigned to me which I briefed and posted in mid and outer perimeter security positions. Their Sergeant, Bruce, also in charge of the SWAT team, was assigned to me as well and wearing a suit. Bomb sweeps were completed hours before, all agents and police officers were posted, and the public, having gone through physical security checks and magnetometers, filled the convention center approximately an hour earlier. Now all waited for the arrival of the Republican presidential nominee and his entourage.
I made several rounds over the last few hours to each of the Secret Service and police posts, both inside and outside the arena, checking on all personnel and ensuring our predetermined plans were being executed properly. All was flowing smoothly when I received a radio call from Post 113 requesting I respond to his location. Something was up. Normally when a Post Stander has a general question for the Site Agent, he/she will ask it over the air. But when the Site Agent is requested to respond to a Post Standers location, there’s usually something up. Bruce and I made our way to Post 113’s location, which was on a walk way that cut through the crowd, about 60 feet in front of the stage. When we got there, the agent said, “Behind me, at the 7 o’clock position, about 20 feet back is a white guy, about 6’2, mid 20’s, dark slicked back hair, wearing a trench coat.”
The guy stood out and looked menacing. I saw him as I continued to generally observe the crowd without making eye contact with him. I said, “I see him. What the hell’s he doing wearing a trench coat? It’s burning up in here and that idiot’s wearing a trench coat.” The agent agreed and added, “For the last 10 minutes, that guy’s been staring me down. He’s just been standing there, motionless, with his hands in his coat pockets, staring at me. Like he’s challenging me.” I looked at Bruce and said, “Okay, we’ll check him out.”
Knowing this guy was likely watching us as well, instead of approaching him directly, Bruce and I continued through the walkway, stopping to briefly speak with the other Secret Service Post Standers and uniformed officers, so it would appear we were just making our rounds, checking up with our personnel. Eventually we made our way out of the area and out of the line of sight of our subject. Bruce and I then worked our way around the side of the crowd until we were about 20 feet behind him. From our vantage point, we could see he was still in the same position, staring at the agent at Post 113. There was an attractive blond woman, also appearing to be in her early 20’s, on his right. It appeared they may have been together, but it was hard to say, as he didn’t pay any attention to her and instead stayed fixated on the agent.
We casually approached him from behind, me on his left, Bruce on his right. His hands were still in his pockets. I gave Bruce a slight nod and we simultaneously moved in and grabbed each of the subjects’ wrists, maintaining his hands in his coat pockets. It was a subtle move, not attracting the attention of those around us. I held my badge in my left hand against my chest so he could see it but not others.
“Hey buddy, Secret Service. I’d like to talk to you for a second,” I said, in a somewhat quiet voice. His eyes were the size of silver dollars. He suddenly lost his menacing look.
“What did I do? I didn’t do anything,” he asked in a startled voice.
“Nothing, we just need to speak with you for a second,” I replied. I asked if he had anything in his coat pockets or hands. He said he did not. With my right hand still clutched to his left wrist, I directed him to slowly take his hand out of his pocket one finger at a time. He complied and performed the same procedure for Bruce with his other hand. We then walked him over to a side door and into a secure hallway.
Once inside the hallway I asked if he had any weapons or sharp objects on him. He said he did not. We patted him down and ran his ID. Everything came back negative.
Nervously he asked again, “What did I do? Why do you want to talk to me? I didn’t do anything.”
I replied, “It’s probably 90 degrees in here, people are sweating, and I’ve got a guy wearing a trench coat, with his hands concealed in the pockets, who for the last 10 minutes has been staring down one of my agents. Now why the hell do you think I want to talk to you?!” His eyes widened even more, and his jaw dropped, as if truly shocked at what he heard.
“What? Oh, no, no. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be staring. I swear I wasn’t trying to stare down the Secret Service. I was just watching you guys. I think what you guys do is cool. I swear I didn’t mean to do that. I would never do that,” he plead on the verge of tears. I asked him who the blond was. He said she was a girl he had just started dating and thought it would be exciting to bring her to the rally. I asked a series of questions. His answers and demeanor clearly indicated he posed no threat. He stated he and his family were Bush supporters and that they owned a restaurant in town (which we confirmed). I asked why he was wearing the trench coat.
He said, “I knew you guys (Secret Service) wore coats and I just thought it would be kind of cool.” He then looked down, “Plus, I thought it might impress her.”
I said, “We’ve got 8000 people in here. Our agents are tuned up, scanning the crowd for anybody who may pose a threat, and I’m wasting my time with some guy who’s trying to impress his girlfriend!?”
He apologized profusely and said he would also like to apologize to the agent he had been staring at. I told him no, that instead of paying attention to the agents, he should be paying attention to his girlfriend.
We let him back into the rally. It was an anticlimactic end to an observance of abnormal behavior. Thankfully, most of these situations end in much the same way. But agents must assume the worst until proven otherwise. After all, John Hinckley was also just trying to impress a girl.
Governor Bush and his entourage arrived on time and the event went off without a hitch. In one week, he would be elected the 43rd President of the United States.
Meet and speak with former Secret Service Agent, Eric Enos, on Saturday October 13 from 12 noon to 6 at the Concord Oktoberfest. Look for the Diablo Gazette Tent. We advise you NOT to wear your trench coat.
(Updated from Diablo Gazette, November 2016.)