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Ten days before a presidential trip, at least eight to twelve agents fly to the intended destination. That is in contrast to the two-man advance team sent for President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas. Back then, the Secret Service had about 300 special agents, compared with 3,404 today. Now an advance team includes a lead agent, a transportation agent, airport agent, agents assigned to each event site, a hotel advance agent, one or two logistics agents, a technical security agent, and an intelligence agent.


As part of advance preparations, a team of military communications personnel from the White House Communications Agency is sent to handle radios, phones, and faxes. They ship their equipment and additional personnel on Air Force C-130 cargo planes. The Uniformed Division’s counter-sniper team and the counter-assault team (CAT) from the Secret Service’s Special Operations Division may also send agents on an advance party.



The CAT is critical to providing protection outside the White House. A heavily armed tactical unit, it is assigned to the president, vice president, foreign heads of state, or any other protectee, such as a presidential candidate, deemed to require extra coverage. In the event of an attack, the CAT’s mission is to divert the attack away from a protectee, allowing the working shift of agents to shield and evacuate the individual. Once the “problem,” as Secret Service agents put it, is dealt with, CAT members regroup and the shift leader directs them to their next position.


The Secret Service first started using the teams on a limited basis in 1979. They were formed after several agents involved in training were having lunch and began asking themselves how the Secret Service would deal with a terrorist attack, according to Taylor Rudd, one of the agents. After President Reagan was shot in 1981, the teams were expanded and eventually, in 1983, centralized at headquarters.



The CAT differs from a special weapons and tactics team (SWAT), which the police or Secret Service may deploy once an attack occurs. Codenamed Hawkeye, CAT takes action as the attack occurs. “Depending on the circumstances, before 1979, besides agents riding with the president, we had five or six agents in a muscle car with Uzi submachine guns,” says William Albracht, a founding member of the counterassault teams. “If something happened, they were supposed to lay down a base of fire or have firepower available. They added another layer of protection to the principal. If they came under attack, they would have returned fire. The job of the agents with the protectee is always to cover and evacuate. Get him the hell out of there. So they would try to cover a withdrawal, or

if they’re in a kill zone, try in some way to get him out with extra firepower.”


The muscle car concept was “very loose, and the criteria for engaging hostile fire was somewhat unclear,” Albracht says. “The CAT program, which replaced it, was designed to codify and standardize the Secret Service’s response to terrorist-type attacks.” Clad in black battle-dress uniforms, known as BDUs, CAT members travel with the president. They are trained in close-quarters battle—when small units engage the enemy with weapons at very close range. They are also trained in motorcade ambush tactics and building defense tactics.



Each CAT team member is equipped with a fully automatic SR-16 rifle, a SIG Sauer P229 pistol, flash bang grenades for diversionary tactics, and smoke grenades.


CAT agents also may be armed with Remington breaching shotguns, a weapon that has been modified with a short barrel. The shotgun may be loaded with non-lethal Hatton rounds to blow the lock off a door.


One time a CAT team had to deploy was 12 January, 1992, when a protest rally got out of hand during a visit by President George H. W. Bush to Panama City, Panama. Agents rushed Bush and his wife back into their limousine and they sped away unharmed. No shots were fired by the Secret Service.



In August 1995, the CAT deployed again when President Clinton was playing golf at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club in Wyoming. Secret Service agents spotted a worker aiming a rifle at Clinton from the rooftop of a home under construction on the edge of the golf course. It turned out that the man was using the rifle’s telescopic site to watch the presidential party up close. Agents held him for questioning and then released him.


Extracted from In the President’s Secret Service, by Ronald Kessler, Crown Publishing, 288 pp., $26.00