Q&A with Dan Emmett, former Secret Service agent, author of 'Within Arm's Length'

Dan Emmett knew from the time he was 8 years old that he wanted to be a Secret Service agent; he made that determination right after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Emmett, a former Marine Corps captain, spent 21 years protecting three different presidents as a Secret Service special agent. Six of those years he worked in the elite Presidential Protective Division, always within arm’s length — which is also the title of his new book.

Emmett spoke with The Hill about his desire to provide an accurate account of the life of a Secret Service agent and to clear up some misunderstandings about their work.

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Q: What made you decide to write this book?
Most of the books that are out there right now about the Secret Service don’t really deal with the organization in a fair way, in my opinion. I thought people might enjoy a book written by an agent describing what it’s like to have a 21-year career as an agent, without any sensitive information, without any embarrassing information about people we’ve protected. That seems to be what most people have written about of late. So I thought I’d try and provide an honest, up-front account of being an agent.

Q: You write in your book that President Kennedy’s assassination inspired you to join the Secret Service. Did that make you want to protect the president, specifically?
Specifically, right, because when I decided at the age of 8 that I wanted to be a Secret Service agent, I didn’t know they did anything but protect the president. Of course, they do a lot of other things, and I did quite a few things when I was an agent, but the six years I spent on the presidential detail were the most rewarding of all the time I spent in the Secret Service.

Q: Did you ever have any close calls or scary moments when protecting the president?
I would have to say that any time you leave the White House with the president of the United States, it’s apprehensive. You know, when you say “scary,” it was never in that way. We were never afraid — we were never scared — but we were apprehensive at times. Certain situations when you know you’re going to go up, you are a lot more alert. Other times you’re not quite so much so. But any time you leave the White House, it’s a tense experience.

Q: Did you ever get the chance to relax while you were on the job, or were you always on alert?
Some trips you went on, there was some downtime where you could actually go out and see parts of the country you were in, if it was a foreign trip. But for the most part, you were working. As I point out in the book, when you’re a new agent, you look forward to going to all these exotic places. And when you get there, you find out that you are working so much and you’re so tired, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s just another place.

Q: You guys have to do some odd things with the presidents. Did you ever have to help George Bush clear brush at his Texas ranch, or walk any of the presidents’ dogs?
No, let me put a kibosh on that right away. Secret Service agents do not walk dogs. Ever. Under any set of circumstances. That is a myth that has been attributed to the service in the past. The people who walk the White House pets are actually full-time paid custodial personnel of the White House. An agent will die for the president, but he will not walk his dog.

Q: You served on the presidential detail under both George Bushes and Bill Clinton. Did you ever have a favorite, or was it just part of your job?
Secret Service agents look at presidents on two levels. One is a political level, like everyone else does. We all have our political beliefs. Then we also look at them on a personal level. Are they difficult to deal with? And the three presidents I worked with on the presidential detail, all of them were very good to deal with — very easy. I can’t really say I liked one any more than the other.

Q: What is the biggest misconception you think people have about the work of Secret Service agents?
People think it’s a glamorous job. It’s a very difficult job. You’re working shift work. For two weeks you’re working eight [four-hour shifts]. The next two weeks you’re working midnight shifts. Two weeks later you’re working four [twelve-hour shifts]. Then you go into a two-week training cycle. Then it starts all over again, and that goes on forever — the entire time you’re on the presidential detail. So, for every moment you spend with the president, with the media, flying on Air Force One, for every hour you do that, there are 100 hours you spend standing somewhere being uncomfortable.

Q: What do you think is the toughest thing you had to deal with personally while you were in the Secret Service?
The hardest part of being on the detail was probably just the hours. Constant travel, constant time away from home, your body clock never really gets used to any one time zone. Sleep is almost impossible because you travel so much. You’re constantly in a state of sleep deprivation and jet lag and malnourishment, almost, at times. But … you learn that you can’t really be at the peak of your game all the time, or you burn out. You have to understand when it’s time to ramp it up and when it’s permissible to back down a little bit. But you learn that with experience; it comes with time.

Q: During campaign season, presidents have to go a lot of places and get close to a lot of different people. Is that a particularly stressful time for you all to deal with?
Campaign year is a very difficult time because there are so many stops along the way. And of course, back when I was on the presidential detail, the president would frequently go into crowds that had not been through security checks. They had not been through magnetometers, they had not been through X-rays, and so on. So it was real protection. You didn’t know who was in the crowd. It’s a lot different today, though. We’re talking about the mid-’90s. Today there are a lot more 
precautions in place, and presidents are not nearly as reachable to the public, I think, as they once were.