What It's Like To Be...

A Secret Service Agent

July 02, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 22
A Secret Service Agent
What It's Like To Be...
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What It's Like To Be...
A Secret Service Agent
Jul 02, 2024 Season 1 Episode 22
Dan Heath

Scanning crowds for suspicious behavior, learning how to leap from moving vehicles, and investigating every threat to the president with Cindy Marble, a retired Secret Service agent. What's it like to witness history up close? And what is "left of boom"?

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  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?
Show Notes Transcript

Scanning crowds for suspicious behavior, learning how to leap from moving vehicles, and investigating every threat to the president with Cindy Marble, a retired Secret Service agent. What's it like to witness history up close? And what is "left of boom"?

Follow us on Instagram!

Got a comment or suggestion for us? You can reach us via email at jobs@whatitslike.com

Want to be on the show? Leave a message on our voice mailbox at (919) 213-0456. We’ll ask you to answer two questions:

  1. What do people think your job is like and what is it actually like?
  2. What’s a word or phrase that only someone from your profession would be likely to know and what does it mean?

Dan Heath: Okay, let's do this. Bill Clinton?

Cindy Marble: You want me to give them to you?

Dan Heath: Yeah, yeah.

Cindy Marble: Okay. Eagle.

Dan Heath: George W. Bush?

Cindy Marble: George W., Trailblazer.

Dan Heath: Obama?

Cindy Marble: Renegade.

Dan Heath: Donald Trump?

Cindy Marble: You know what? That one, I don't know because I was out by that time. I retired in 2016.

Dan Heath: That's Cindy Marble. She worked for the Secret Service for almost 27 years, which included stints guarding George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush. I was asking her about the code names used for different presidents. Donald Trump is Mogul, by the way, and Joe Biden is Celtic. One of the things I didn't know about code names was that the code names of everyone in a president's family will share the same first letter. So as she said, George W. Bush was Trailblazer, Laura Bush, Tempo, Barbara Bush, Turquoise, Jenna Bush was Twinkle. Nice alliteration there. I asked Cindy where those code names come from.

Cindy Marble: White House Communication Agency, WHCA, gives those.

Dan Heath: So they'll assign them?

Cindy Marble: Mm-hmm.

Dan Heath: Do the candidates, or, I guess, presidents have any choice in those?

Cindy Marble: They do. I mean, I know that some protectees have gotten them and then changed them.

Dan Heath: They didn't get a name they wanted, they wanted a sexier name.

Cindy Marble: Right. And it was Vice President Gore got Sawhorse. That was the first one that was picked for him. And it was, first of all, it was just hard to say. So then he went with, I believe it was Sundance.

Dan Heath: Yeah, I think that was a good call.

Cindy Marble: Yeah. Yeah.

Dan Heath: I'm Dan Heath, and this is What It's Like To Be. In every episode, we walk in the shoes of someone from a different profession, an FBI special agent, a nurse, a forensic accountant. We wanna know what they do all day at work. Today, we're gonna ask Cindy Marble what it's like to be a Secret Service agent. We'll talk about what an agent is looking for when they scan a rope line, what kind of hours you have to work when you're on the campaign trail, and what it's like to have a conversation with somebody who has threatened the president. Stay with us.

So probably everybody listening to this has seen multiple portrayals of Secret Service agents in movies, and TV shows, and so forth. And so our associations are motorcades, and watching over presidents at public rallies, and things like that. Is that accurate? Like, what is a normal day like in the real world?

Cindy Marble: So it depends on what your role is. If you are working the shift, it's a number of people that are basically around the president all the time. And if it's a typical day at the White House, they're holding posts at the White House. You could be assigned to the transportation section, which is the cars. So you're either preparing, or running routes, or doing advance work. You could be on the first lady's detail. It's the same type of thing where you're responsible for her movements.

Dan Heath: So do you get to know the people that you're protecting personally?

Cindy Marble: Yes. In the positions that I held when I was with George Senior, it's a smaller detail, and they get to know everybody. And, of course, they were just such wonderfully gracious people. They made it a point to get to know all of us, so very fortunate with them. And then, my second time that I was on the president's detail, I was a senior supervisor, so I worked directly, you know, with the president, closest to him, and sometimes the primary supervisor with him, so got to know him as well.

Dan Heath: And so what are those dynamics like? If you're in a room with, you know, George Bush Sr., are you supposed to pretend like you're kind of not there, or can you make small talk, or what happens?

Cindy Marble: You know, if he was talking to me, certainly I would make small talk with him, but no, I mean, it's like you go into a room and, you know, you're at a point where you can observe and ensure that everything is the way it should be, and that you just leave them to do their thing, and to socialize, and things like that. And you just kind of, you know, stand off and observe, and again, just make sure everything is the way that it should be.

Dan Heath: So is the day-to-day work physically challenging?

Cindy Marble: Some of it is. The day-to-day work of the protection mission is physically challenging and mentally challenging as well. But it can take a toll on the body, that's for sure. You know, there are long days and sometimes some pretty short nights, if you're talking about sleep time. I mean, if you look at the pace that a president keeps, and it's just amazing to me. You think about all the people that are going along with that, and there's not a lot of sleep time.

Dan Heath: I mean, how long would a normal day be for a Secret Service agent?

Cindy Marble: You know, it would depend. I mean, you could be working a shift for 12 hours. You could be doing a 12-hour shift, getting on a plane, flying to somewhere else, getting a few hours sleep. And the campaign years are probably the most grueling because you're typically, at least back in the day, I don't know what it is now, but it was a 21-day rotation. So you would be out, you know, you would leave your home, you'd be gone for 21 days, and you'd work the three different shifts within those three weeks. So you'd be on midnights, days, and then afternoons. And you know, oftentimes you'd finish up a midnight shift at maybe 8:00 AM, hop a plane to the next city, wherever the protectee was going. And you may get in, you know, you think about weather delays and everything that happens when you travel. And you might get in two hours before your shift starts again, and you're on a midnight shift again. So that can be pretty physically demanding.

Dan Heath: And when you're following the president, like, are you on Air Force One or, like, how do you get from place to place?

Cindy Marble: Again, it just depends. If you're the working shift with the president, you're gonna be on Air Force One. If you are the non-working shifts or have another role, you could be on what we call a car plane, which is a military transport, and we call them car planes because they carry our cars. You could be on that. Either a C-5 or a 141. Or you could be commercial, or you could be in a car, depending.

Dan Heath: So what do you think people get the most wrong about the job? Because we have, as I've mentioned, had our perception skewed by media portrayals over the years. Like, what do you think is the biggest difference between what we think the job is and what it really is?

Cindy Marble: I think people think of it just as bodyguards and not understanding all the work that not just goes into doing that physical protection piece, but all the work that's going on around that they don't see. I've had people say to me, "Your job must be really boring." You know, when they've seen me, you know, standing post somewhere, and, you know, I just smile and-

Dan Heath: Boring. That was never one of my stereotypes about the job.

Cindy Marble: Yeah, and I just smiled because, you know, I know what I'm doing. And I know what I'm thinking, and what goes into the job, and everything. And no, not boring,

Dan Heath: I have to say, on this topic of boring, I was looking at one of the training agendas. This is on the government website. It's called the Protective Detail Refresher. And some of the bullet points just absolutely dazzled me. There was like skid control, motorcade formations, high-center of gravity vehicles, vehicle ambush countermeasures. I mean, I've seen a lot of corporate training, and none of it is that good.

Cindy Marble: Yeah, no.

Dan Heath: There's not a one. So does that list of things spark any memories?

Cindy Marble: Oh, I mean, out at our training facility in Beltsville, truly, it's one of those things where it's like, I can't believe I get paid for this, because you're out having fun. I mean, you're out, you know, you're doing a serious job and you're learning, you know, and training, but it is, you know, it's physical and you're driving fast or you're shooting, you're doing, you know, all kinds of things that are, no, it's not a corporate environment where you're going in every day and looking at papers.

Dan Heath: What's the craziest thing you've gotten to do as part of a training exercise?

Cindy Marble: You know, there's the basic driving that we all do, and the, you know, jumping out of moving vehicles.

Dan Heath: Wow, so how do you learn how to jump out of a vehicle?

Cindy Marble: Very carefully.

Dan Heath: So, Cindy, we're recording this during campaign season, and one of the things I wanted to ask you about was, when candidates do the thing where they, you know, visit a diner in New Hampshire, I know it's your job to keep them safe during that visit. What do you have to do before the visit happens? Like, what's the protocol?

Cindy Marble: Right, you would do an advance. So, you know, given the information that the protectee was gonna go there, you'd go out ahead of time in advance, speak to local law enforcement there, you know, make connections with those folks. Speak to the people at the diner.

Dan Heath: And what are you asking them? Like, what are you ask law enforcement, and what do you ask the diner owner?

Cindy Marble: Well, with law enforcement, you're basically setting everything up from a security, you know, standpoint of how you're getting in, how you're getting out, you know, the support that they're gonna provide you, you know, from the time you land at the airport, you know, to the time you depart. You're speaking with the folks at the diner to know that you're coming, that there's, you know, that, you know, you wanna make sure that you're respectful of their business. So, you know, you don't want to just go in there and, you know, not give them any notice or be able to prepare.

Dan Heath: When you're monitoring a crowd, like on a rope line or something, or a campaign event, you always see the agents scanning. Like, what are you scanning for? Like, what are the warning flags?

Cindy Marble: You know, a lot of it has to do with somebody's presence, their demeanor. You're looking at how they're carrying themselves, how they're dressed. Do they look different than everyone else? Is everyone else excited and they're not, or vice versa? Where are their hands? I mean, a lot of the time, you know, especially when you're in a rope line situation and things are moving quickly and you're watching, you wanna know where people's hands are so that you can react. But it really is that instinct that I think is developed through all the training and through all the experience of looking at people and knowing, again, instinctively, like, something's not right here, and you'll react accordingly.

Dan Heath: One of the other things that I feel like we've all picked up from the media is the idea that any threat of the president is taken seriously, even if it was supposedly a joke. Is that true?

Cindy Marble: Absolutely. 100%. Every threat is investigated. I was assigned to the Protective Intelligence division, and it's, you know, 24/7 operation, just like everything is in the Secret Service. And we would get some interesting phone calls at, you know, two or three in the morning. Oftentimes, you would know that it was somebody calling, you know, from a bar or something like that. But even with that, it was something that was always investigated.

Dan Heath: Wait, somebody would call you like to say that they had heard someone else threaten? Is that what you mean?

Cindy Marble: Oh, yes.

Dan Heath: Cindy said that in a situation like somebody calling from a bar, the Secret Service would get someone from the nearest local field office to start an investigation, and they would go track down the person who made the threat. I asked if she'd ever been part of those conversations.

Cindy Marble: Oh yes. Quite a few, actually.

Dan Heath: I mean, what is that like?

Cindy Marble: They can be interesting. You know, being part of the Protective Intelligence division, and even my time before that was at the Washington Field Office, and the Washington Field Office would be the ones responsible for responding over to the White House if there was a White House, what we would call a White House gate caller. You know, somebody would come up to the gate and, you know, either wanna speak to the president or claim that they were related to the president or something like that. So we would be brought out to talk with them. And it was interesting. You wore sort of a part psychologist hat and then, you know, part police, part investigator, and you would just listen and, you know, hear what they had to say. And a lot of the time, you would be connecting that person back to, whether it was a family member or maybe their physician.

Dan Heath: Oh my gosh. It never dawned on me that this, I mean, it's almost like there's some social work aspects to this.

Cindy Marble: Very much so. There are a lot of people that are dealing with some mental health issues, for sure. You know, and you hit the nail on the head with the social work because it truly is a lot of that, and that's something that people certainly don't know about the job, is that, you know, oftentimes we'd be talking to folks and, you know, we'd ask them, "Do you feel like you need to see a doctor?" And, you know, we would take them to the hospital, or there would be times not that often, but where we would have to take somebody, even if they weren't, didn't feel like they needed to go, you know, we felt like they needed to be checked out by a physician, but more often than not, I was taking people down to the Greyhound bus station or to Travelers Aid to get money to go back to wherever they came from.

Dan Heath: Have you ever had a conversation with someone where you felt like they really were a legitimate threat?

Cindy Marble: Yes, I did work one particular case that when I was assigned to the Protective Intelligence division of someone that I was very concerned about.

Dan Heath: And, you know, disguising whatever details you need to disguise, what can you tell us about that?

Cindy Marble: It was a situation where I felt that this person would really do anything to get the attention of the protectee. So it was a situation where we just, again, putting those protective measures into place, spending a lot of time with that person, and ensuring that, you know, they were getting the proper treatment that they needed. So a combination of physical protection and the intervention and help getting that person the assistance that they needed.

Dan Heath: Gosh, I didn't think about how, I guess, my mental model was that a lot of the people making threats would be some kind of political extremist, but it sounds like it's a lot more common that it's just a function of some kind of severe mental health issue, which totally changes the way you handle it.

Cindy Marble: It does. And there are different motivations. The Secret Service has done a lot of research, really landmark research on targeted violence. And that's what we look at when we're looking at folks who are, you know, potentially a threat to not only just, you know, government figures but even high-profile individuals, movie stars and things like that. There are different motivations. People are dealing with different life stressors. It doesn't necessarily have to be a diagnosed mental illness, and oftentimes it's not, but more a deterioration of mental stability, I guess you could say. Or it is grievance-fueled that takes them to a point of, I have no other choice but to act. So it's really having that understanding of where somebody is in their life, what the life stressors are, you know, if there is some sort of mental health issue that is going along with that, and then figuring out how to, again, protect against that. And also what measures need to be put into place to help mitigate that and hopefully get the person the help that they need.

Dan Heath: Hey, folks, Dan here. Our next three episodes after this one are part of our Summer Job series. This is our first series. How exciting is that? And we have some doozies ready for you. First up is Ocean Lifeguard.

Ocean Lifeguard: When it's really quiet and the dolphins come by, you can hear them breathe. You can hear that sound of just . You can't even see them, but you can hear them.

Dan Heath: Then we'll take a ride with an ice cream truck driver.

Ice Cream Truck Driver: Kids, they're like, "Oh, can I come drive with you? Can I come in the ice cream truck?" I get that all the time. And I was like, "Believe me, ask my kids, you will hate it 15 minutes in."

Dan Heath: And for the third episode in the series, we'll go deep with a summer camp director.

Summer Camp Director: And then we sing sad songs. The sadder, the better. You know, the "Jet Plane" is the last song, and everybody cries, and it's great.

Dan Heath: Do you cry?

Summer Camp Director: No, no, I'm smiling.

Dan Heath: These episodes are fun, and nostalgic, and surprising, just like good summer entertainment should be. I can't wait to hear what you all think of them. But for now, let's get back to the Secret Service. What did the Secret Service learn from the famous failures like, you know, the JFK assassination, of course, and Reagan being shot in the '80s? What was changed in the aftermath of those things?

Cindy Marble: Well, from a physical protection standpoint, obviously with President Kennedy, it was, you know, open vehicles. That's, you know, one thing.

Dan Heath: That would never happen today?

Cindy Marble: Would certainly not want to do that. You know, understanding the ability of someone on a higher, you know, the high ground as we would call it, and monitoring, you know, open windows and buildings and things like that. That obviously came from that event. Other measures that were put in place after the Reagan shooting, there were a lot of lessons learned from that. We, at that point, did not have a hospital agent.

Dan Heath: What's a hospital agent?

Cindy Marble: Somebody assigned to the local hospital and understanding what the abilities are of the hospital, wherever you are. That's part of the work that we do is liaisoning with hospitals and the trauma surgeons that are there, and-

Dan Heath: Oh, wow. So you have to know, like, if something happens, like, we're gonna get the protectee to this hospital with this surgeon standing by. Wow.

Cindy Marble: Right. So I mean that's, again, that's part of the advance work, but also part of the relationship building that I think is very unique in the Secret Service, I think more than any other law enforcement agency of the fact that it's not just the agents that carry out this protective mission. It's all the local law enforcement that's involved. It's the hospitals, it's the fire department. You know, it's the ambulance drivers. It's all of these folks that are involved in each and every movement that occurs.

Dan Heath: I asked Cindy about some of the most historic events that she witnessed, and one of them was the 9/11 attacks. She was with George H.W. Bush, who had been visiting George W. Bush at the White House the day before. And then on 9/11.

Cindy Marble: We left at about 8:30 that morning from the White House, and we were in the air en route to another location when we got word that the first plane had hit.

Dan Heath: Oh, wow. You were in the air.

Cindy Marble: Yes.

Dan Heath: What was that like hearing that news?

Cindy Marble: You know, when we got the news that the first plane had hit one of the towers, I immediately thought of, our Secret Service New York Field Office was based in one of the towers at the World Trade Center. And, you know, I obviously thought, you know, that it was, I wasn't thinking it was a terrorist attack, it was just, we just thought a plane crashed into it. And I thought of my friends that were there. And it wasn't until obviously, you know, a few minutes later that we learned that there was another one and that it was a completely different picture than what we were thinking it was.

Dan Heath: And what happened after you got word of the second attack?

Cindy Marble: Well, as you know, all air travel was grounded at that point, so we had to land.

Dan Heath: I mean, including the former president?

Cindy Marble: Yes.

Dan Heath: Wow.

Cindy Marble: Yeah, so we had to land, and we, you know, we had to land basically where we were. The pilot had to find an airport to land at.

Dan Heath: They were grounded for about a day. And then the former president was given special authorization to fly. And that was just one memory of several that Cindy mentioned. She flew to Saudi Arabia with George H.W. Bush in 1991, right after the Desert Storm operation. Then that led her to remember that when Iraq had first invaded Kuwait, she'd been protecting Margaret Thatcher at the time. Thatcher, of course, was the prime minister of the UK for over a decade. I mean, it's pretty incredible, isn't it, to have the kind of career where it's like, there's so many things going through your mind that you can't really choose one.

Cindy Marble: Right. My grandmother, when I started the job, said, "You need to write all this stuff down," and I should have listened to her 'cause I didn't. But like I said, I've had a blessed career, and I've been able to see and do things. I've, you know, been intimately involved in, you know, State of the Union, and being able to walk behind the president as he's entering the chamber to do the speech. And, you know, that's pretty incredible. And the first time seeing, you know, the Supreme Court justices as they're walking into the state of the Union-

Dan Heath: Wow.

Cindy Marble: which I thought was pretty cool. I don't get too starstruck at all, but I did when I saw the Supremes.

Dan Heath: So, Cindy, we always have a lightning round of questions on our show. Let me fire away here.

Cindy Marble: Okay.

Dan Heath: What is a tool specific to your profession that you really like using?

Cindy Marble: Well, I was always fond of the extendable baton.

Dan Heath: Mmm, tell me more.

Cindy Marble: It's a good tool just to have, you know, it's a non-lethal measure, and, you know, it was nice to know that it was there.

Dan Heath: Did you ever have to use it?

Cindy Marble: Yes, but not in a way to hit anybody. I think it was more of to get people to step back, that type of thing, but not ever used to harm anyone.

Dan Heath: I usually ask guests about a word or phrase that only someone from their profession would be likely to know. Cindy had actually brought up a good one earlier in our conversation, left of boom.

Cindy Marble: Boom is the bad thing, left of boom is before it. It's what we call the preventative time. That's all the work you do, so you don't get to boom.

Dan Heath: So, did you catch that? Imagine a timeline that flows from left to right, and somewhere in the middle there's a boom, that's the bad thing. And being left of boom, well, that's the time you've got to prevent the bad thing from happening. I love that expression. And she had another good one, too.

Cindy Marble: One thing that I was thinking about, and it's always was the constant battle between how the Service said it and how the staff said it. When the president or protectee was gonna stay overnight somewhere, we would call it an RON, remain overnight. The staff would always wanna call it Ron, and it would just like annoy all of us because it's like, "It's not Ron, it's RON," so.

Dan Heath: I love that. It's not a Ron. Stop saying that.

Cindy Marble: It's not Ron, yeah. So you know, it's like, go in, you could pick those staff guys out a million miles away.

Dan Heath: Amateurs.

Cindy Marble: Amateurs.

Dan Heath: What's a sound specific to your profession that you're likely to hear?

Cindy Marble: Hail to the chief.

Dan Heath: Oh, gosh, I hadn't thought about that. I bet you have heard that a few times.

Cindy Marble: Oh yeah, many.

Dan Heath: And so it was pleasant repetition and not annoying repetition?

Cindy Marble: No, not annoying at all. No, it's special. When you hear that, you know, there are special moments of, you know, watching Air Force One land, and it's like, I mean, we stand out there often and say, "It's like no matter how many times that bird lands, it's still something pretty cool." It's also good to see it take off 'cause the work is done for the day anyway. But yeah, I mean, you know, wheels down is a good thing to hear, and wheels up is a good thing to hear.

Dan Heath: Is it an all-consuming job?

Cindy Marble: Yes, it is. It honestly becomes, it does not become a job, or it doesn't become work, it becomes your life. It's a 24/7 thing, and it is who you become.

Dan Heath: Do you miss it?

Cindy Marble: I miss those fun aspects of it. I miss the people. I think that the Secret Service as a whole, the people are incredible. You know, high stakes job, but everybody, we laughed a lot as well, so I do miss that. There are other aspects that I don't. You know, your life is not your own.

Dan Heath: Cindy Marble was a Secret Service agent for nearly 27 years. She retired in 2016.

The biggest surprise for me from this conversation was that the phrase social work popped up. Did not see that coming. I just never considered that a lot of the people who pose threats might actually just need mental health treatment more than some kind of law enforcement remedy. I couldn't help picturing Cindy at the White House, talking to some of these random people who come up to the gates, figuring out who to connect them with. Who knew that was part of the Secret Service job? The other thing that stood out to me was how important sustained focus is to the job. I mean, maybe your first month on the shift in the White House, you're dazzled, and it's easy to stay alert. But on the seventh hour in the 184th day, it's a very different thing. How do you keep your guard up?

And this is kind of a weird association, but there are two more shows coming up with exactly the same job requirement. There's an ocean lifeguard coming up next. He talks about how hard it is to stay vigilant in the lifeguard stand. And then soon after that is an episode with a long-haul trucker. Imagine having to stay dialed in for 11 hours in a row on the road. So mentally taxing. For the record, I don't think anyone has ever previously linked the careers of Secret Service agent, long-haul trucker, and ocean lifeguard. But that's part of what makes this show so fun to work on. 

Thinking through advanced logistics. How do you get the president from A to B to C back to A safely. Scanning crowds for things that just don't seem right, taking every threat seriously, enduring the gauntlet of long hours worked by a president, staying focused, keeping alert, folks, that's what it's like to be a Secret Service agent.

This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. I am Dan Heath, and stay tuned for the Summer Job series coming in two weeks. Take care.