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Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service

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The first definitive account of the rise and fall of the Secret Service, from the Kennedy assassination to the ongoing scandals under Obama and Trump--by Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of A Very Stable Genius

Carol Leonnig has been covering the Secret Service for The Washington Post for most of the last decade, bringing to light the gaffes and scandals that plague the agency today--from a toxic work culture to outdated equipment and training to the deep resentment among the ranks with the agency's leadership. But the Secret Service wasn't always so troubled.

The Secret Service was born in 1865, in the wake of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but its story begins in earnest in 1963, with the death of John F. Kennedy. Shocked into reform by their failure to protect the president on that fateful day, this once-sleepy agency was rapidly transformed into a proud, elite unit that would finally redeem themselves in 1981 by valiantly thwarting an assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan. But this reputation for courage and efficiency would not last forever. By Barack Obama's presidency, the Secret Service was becoming notorious for break-ins at the White House, an armed gunman firing at the building while agents stood by, a massive prostitution scandal in Cartagena, and many other dangerous lapses.

To expose the these shortcomings, Leonnig interviewed countless current and former agents who risked their careers to speak out about an agency that's broken and in desperate need of a reform.

560 pages, Hardcover

First published May 11, 2021

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About the author

Carol Leonnig

12 books169 followers
Carol Duhurst Leonnig is an American investigative journalist and a longtime staff writer for The Washington Post. She was part of a team of national security reporters that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2014 for reporting that revealed the NSA's expanded spying on Americans. She later received Pulitzers for National Reporting in 2015 and 2018. She is a member of the '87 class at Bryn Mawr College

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Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
June 10, 2023
“America wants to project the image of being free and open, ‘of the people.’ As recently as 1881, sixteen years after Lincoln’s assassination and fresh off James Garfield’s, the country rejected the idea of a presidential security force because it smacked of ‘royals’ hiding behind an imperial guard. Despite the inherent dangers, Bill Clinton and JFK continually subverted their detail agents to get closer to their adoring fans – the latter famously ditching his detail to go for a swim at a public beach in California. Reagan’s handlers engaged in a heated debate with the Service over the optics of using metal detectors at the president’s first public appearance after the attempt on his life. Even internally, agents have nearly come to blows over such issues, including whether long guns on the White House roof would create the impression that the leader of the free world lives in a military compound…”
- Carol Leonnig, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service

In protecting the life of the President of the United States, the Secret Service has one of the most important jobs in the world. Given the number of guns and unstable persons in the country, along with the fact that roughly fifty percent of the population hates the president at any given time, and it also has one of the toughest jobs.

With a cool name, a patina of professionalism, and sixty years since the last murdered president, the Secret Service also seems like it works. By the time you have finished Carol Leonnig’s Zero Fail, that conclusion has been heavily scrutinized. Indeed, without ever saying it directly, it is hard to leave with any other impression than that the safety of America’s chief executive is more a matter of blind chance than anything else.


Zero Fail is subtitled The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service. This implies that the presidential protection detail once occupied lofty heights, from which it has only recently tumbled. Thus, it is a bit ironic that Leonnig begins her narrative with John F. Kennedy, and the Secret Service’s greatest failure.

On November 22, 1963, three shots were fired at President Kennedy as he sat in an open vehicle traveling through Dallas, Texas. After the first shot rang out, Kennedy’s driver hesitated, and looked behind him, instead of mashing the accelerator of the powerful limo. As Leonnig notes, this pause – contrary to protocol and training – left Kennedy wide open for the kill-shot.

To make matters worse for the Secret Service, the Warren Commission later discovered that several Secret Service agents had been out drinking and carousing till the wee hours, appearing for duty sleep-deprived and hungover. Though it cannot be said that this directly led to President Kennedy’s death, it certainly proved a bad look.

Things would not improve going forward.


Once finished with President Kennedy, Leonnig moves in chronological fashion through the next ten presidents, taking us all the way to 2020. At nearly 500 pages of text, Zero Fail is nothing if not ambitious. Structurally, it is divided into five big sections, each meant to represent a different stage of the Secret Service’s progression toward ineptitude.

The important thing to mention here is that Zero Fail is an institutional history, as opposed to an operational history. In other words, this is a forensic examination of a bureaucracy, rather than a comprehensive account of what the Secret Service has done in the field.

Leonnig is not really interested in retelling close calls, or in describing training, tactics, or technology. To be sure, there are some set pieces, such as the aforementioned Kennedy assassination. She also covers Squeaky Fromme’s attempt on Gerald Ford, and John Hinckley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan. These high-drama moments, however, are delivered almost grudgingly, without any real verve. It’s hard to underplay events of such potentially world-historical import, but Leonnig somehow manages.


Instead of presenting the things that make the Secret Service interesting, Leonnig is hyper-focused on office politics, bad-boy behavior, and the increased politicization of the agency. More precisely, Zero Fail is the end-result of Leonnig’s work as an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, and much of the “explosive” material presented within these pages has already appeared in a series of exposés.

At times, this genesis is very apparent, as the book reads like a series of newspaper articles glued between two hard covers, rather than a single coherent volume. For example, Leonnig devotes an entire chapter to a low-level White House guard who wrote a memorandum criticizing the Service’s preparedness. Later, this man did not have his contract renewed, which Leonnig implies amounts to retaliation.

Clearly, I was supposed to feel shock and outrage. Instead, this seemed a needless digression. Every entry-level employee in history thinks that he or she can solve every organizational problem after two days on the job. This guy was no different. Often, I sensed that many of Leonnig’s sources – like this memo writer – were biased, aggrieved, or settling old scores. Nevertheless, the sheer number of people talking to her to proves the point that there is something exceptionally rotten at the core of the Secret Service.


Zero Fail can be incredibly frustrating in what it chooses to expound upon, and what it chooses to ignore. When a Cessna crashes on the White House lawn, it seems a good time to discuss the Secret Service’s air defenses, or lack thereof, especially in the post-9/11 era of suicide flights. Leonnig chooses to go a different route, wallowing in Bill Clinton’ sordid behavior for page after page. Even as she pumps a series of blabbermouthed agents for gossip, she never discloses what kind of confidentiality rules govern the behavior of Secret Service members. This feels like something that should’ve been touched upon, given that – agency name aside – there doesn’t seem to be a single person able to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Still, Leonnig obviously wanted to tell a particular story, and I can’t criticize her for that. The tale she unfolds is an ugly one, an agency rife with misogyny and racism, where people get ahead by navigating office politics, not by merit. Leonnig’s biggest and most entertaining scene is the Cartagena scandal, where a bunch of on-duty Secret Service agents got drunk and hired prostitutes while being paid to protect President Barack Obama. The shameful episode – only one of many – came to light only when an agent refused to pay a prostitute for services rendered.


There is a certain can’t-look-away-ness to the revelations that the Secret Service is little better than a college fraternity. Ultimately, though, Zero Fail feels very inside-the-Beltway, and there is an assumption that you are going to be inherently vested in the career arcs of civil servants you’ve never heard of.

Meanwhile, Leonnig doesn’t follow some obvious threads that her reporting has identified. She mentions politicization, for instance, but does not discuss what – if anything – is being done to ensure that agents are not intentionally undercutting the man or woman they’re supposed to protect with their own lives. In 1984, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her bodyguards; what’s to keep that from happening here? With the insane toxicity of the political climate, this kind of hypothetical no longer seems beyond the realm of possibility.


The meaning of Zero Fail is simple: the Secret Service isn’t allowed a bad day. There is only one measure of judgment, and if a president dies, it doesn’t matter at all how many things they did right over the years.

Unfortunately, as Leonnig shows, they actually haven’t done too well. This is not to suggest that individual agents haven’t acted honorably, even courageously. At the “Battle of the Blair House,” to highlight one such moment, White House guard Leslie William Coffelt died in a gunfight with Puerto Rican nationalists trying to kill Harry Truman; he killed one of the gunmen with his last conscious act. But even the Service’s proudest moments – such as their response to Hinckley’s attack on Reagan – rest heavily on sheer luck. Hinckley, after all, got off six shots. With that on my mind, I finished with a lingering phrase repeating itself: When, not if.

When, not if.
Profile Image for JD DiLoreto-Hill.
16 reviews3 followers
May 23, 2021
I’d give this 10 stars if I could. I couldn’t put it town. This is one of the most well-written, fascinating, and thorough political books I’ve read in years. It will leave you absolutely jaw-dropped at how genuinely at-risk the most senior leaders in our government are and have been. The details provided are just mind blowing.
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
435 reviews286 followers
August 13, 2021
5 ☆
the Secret Service was born out of a fundamental tension that lies at the heart of American democracy: symbolism versus security

Zero Fail could seem like an exposé, especially since this Washington Post journalist's introduction to the Secret Service was the "Hookergate" scandal in Cartagena in 2012. But author Leonnig bore a more noble agenda as she set out to document the modern history of the Secret Service, warts and all, after extensive interviews and research of federal documents. Leonnig's purpose was to be a conduit for the former and current agents who believe that the Secret Service is broken and in need of major repair.

Created in 1865 as an enforcement arm of the US Treasury, the Secret Service was tasked with eliminating the counterfeit currency flooding the country in the wake of the Civil War. It wasn't until after the third assassination of a US President (POTUS) - William McKinley - in 1901, that Congress authorized the expansion of the Secret Service's purview to include a bodyguard function. Prior to 1901, the prevailing ideology was that American democracy as embodied in the highest elected official didn't warrant the privileged trappings of its British antecedents. Even though the Secret Service's mission has been broadened with its transfer into the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service is most commonly associated with the protection detail surrounding the POTUS. The Service currently employs about 7,000 agents, officers, and other staff and has a budget of approximately $2.2 billion.
"The Secret Service methodology is born of blood. You can only protect for what you know. Every time the Service is tested, it gets better." - a former agent on President Obama's protection detail

Focusing on its protection work, Leonnig began her account of the Secret Service's modern history with the great tragedy in 1963 - the first assassination of a POTUS while under the the Service's guard - and concluded with the January 2021 inauguration of the current POTUS. Because of the agents' close proximity to those they're charged to safeguard, their behind-the-scenes perspectives offered fascinating glimpses of watershed events like JFK's death and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Presidents have been powerful men, who weren't always fully cooperative with their guards. Several actively evaded their protectors for adulterous assignations or weaponized them for their own political agendas in spite of the official nonpartisan status of all federal government employees.

Zero Fail's narrative conveyed the evolution of this normally tight-lipped organization. As the Service recovered from JFK's killing, it solidified a reputation for being an elite hardworking band of patriots willing to take a bullet to safeguard democracy. Recent events have revealed a much altered entity - one plagued by infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence that has led to high employee turnover and a multi-year ranking as the worst place within the federal government in which to work. Evidence of its deterioration have been exposed in the news from "Hookergate," intruders inside the White House, the rapid-fire change in Directors (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Directo...), and the June 2020 clearing of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square. Leonnig revealed that the Trump administration further weakened the Service while benefiting the former's business interests. Some may object to Leonnig's conclusions but comparative statistics were hard to dispute.

I had struggled a bit with composing this review, a typical challenge with histories. Do I mention the poignancy upon hearing the first-hand accounts of JFK's death and his widow's reactions? Or the indignation I felt on behalf of certain officers who didn't fit the fraternity of white males with their insular macho attitudes and who subsequently got sabotaged by their own colleagues? Or much worse, the disgust that certain POTUS flagrantly abused their position and thus the American taxpayers for their own personal gain?

My only criticism, a minor point, with Zero Fail stemmed from my experience with the audiobook. Leonnig narrated the beginning and the end, and her voice lacked the clarity of a professional reader. I much preferred the vocal performance of Maggi-Meg Reed, who thankfully read the majority of this book. Otherwise, Zero Fail was an utterly absorbing book. I give 5 ☆ very infrequently in order to save them for books like this one, and Zero Fail is on track to become one of my top nonfictions of the year.
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews337 followers
December 24, 2021
Leonnig gives us a selective history of the Secret Service’s protection of presidents and candidates starting in 1961 with JFK and carrying us through the Trump years. She covers major incidents such as JFK’s assassination, the shootings of Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, 9-11, and fence jumpers who made it to the White House. She discusses the political pressures applied by Nixon to press the Service to dig up dirt on his enemies and Trump who demanded personal loyalty and used the Service as a political tool. The agents had their own biases with the Service controlled by an entrenched white male good old boys’ network that undermined outsiders and kept minorities from positions of power. Infighting and internal politics prevailed including leaking information to discredit competitors and anyone challenging the good old boy culture. Bad boy behavior, excessive drinking and carousing on trips, repeatedly tarnished the Service’s image. Leonnig puts in lots of personal details giving us some unique looks at presidents and first ladies. Written in a journalistic style, it is an engaging depiction of an agency troubled despite the individual dedication of many of its members. My notes follow.

When Kennedy became president, the Service operated on a $5 million annual budget with 300 employees to deal with both counterfeiting and protecting the president. The vast majority worked in field offices. 34 worked in the White House and were assigned to six-man teams to protect the president. They had military or police experience but received no formal training as agents. They learned on the job. The Service had requested more budget and more men, but a Republican Congress repeatedly said no. The head of the Appropriations Committee publicly made fun of a picture of an agent driving a boat with Jackie skiing behind.

JFK put a new level of stress on the Service. He at times slipped away from his detail. He also had constant streams of women brought to his private residence or hotel, anything from starlets to hookers. The Service had no idea who was spending their evenings alone with the president. JFK traveled constantly and the six-man teams soon found themselves stretched very thin covering one trip often with multiple stops while preparing for the next. On Monday the week of the fatal trip JFK had a 28-mile-long motorcade through Tampa in his open top Limo. As usual tens of thousands thronged the route through the city. On Thursday he went to San Antonio then Houston then Dallas, all with motorcades with JFK in his open top car motoring between high rise buildings.

The relentless schedule meant that 34 men could not provide 24/7 security while thoroughly inspecting motorcade routes in advance. And JFK resented their intrusions in his private life and political outreach to the public. He called the agents “the counterfeit ivy leaguers”, referring to the fact that most came from working class backgrounds but were now accompanying him wearing suits. The president’s detail was not a disciplined bunch and some spent the night before the assassination drinking into the late hours. While that may not have contributed to the president’s death, its revelation was a big blackeye for the Service. Leonnig gives a riveting account of the assassination and aftermath as the agents experienced it.

Johnson was another president who had little faith in the Service. With the fallout from the assassination, the Treasury Secretary greatly exceeded Johnson’s budget request for the Service and got it increased to $12.6 million with the addition of over 200 agents and a training center. Also, the Secret Service chief got IBM to begin computerizing the Service’s paper files. In 1968 with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Johnson immediately authorized the Service to protect well known presidential candidates. Thus George Wallace was given a Service detail that would be with him when he was shot and paralyzed campaigning in the 1972 primary election. Leonnig gives a detailed account of the attacker, Arthur Bremer, and the shooting.

Nixon connived in a multitude of ways to use the Service to his political and financial benefit. Nixon’s first instinct upon Learning about Wallace’s shooting was to pin it on the left to help his reelection. He sent an aide to plant evidence in the shooter’s apartment. He told the FBI to take over the investigation from the Service which led to a spat between the two agencies. This delay allowed the press to get into the apartment and record everything there before the aide got in. But Nixon persisted at every turn to use the Service. Nixon had Treasury Secretary Connelly call Ted Kennedy who was campaigning for McGovern to ask him to accept Secret Service protection. Nixon then told the Service the agent he wanted assigned, one that he felt would dig up dirt on Kennedy and report back. Leonnig itemizes other Nixon dirty tricks and the installation of expensive equipment in his home under the guise of security. But one thing Nixon asked of the Service would do him in, installing a taping system in his office.

In September 1975, there were two attempts on President Ford’s life. In one the Service seized the gun from Lynette Fromme before it went off. In the other, a bullet narrowly missed Ford’s head before Sara Jane Moore was taken down by a bystander. The Carter years went by without major incident. In 1981 Reagan was shot as well as aid Jim Brady, an agent and policeman. Reagan was on a short trip from the White House to give a speech at the Hilton, considered low risk. Still, a detailed plan was drawn up, the hotel inspected by advance men, and a well-trained team accompanied Reagan. As Reagan walked out of the hotel towards his waiting car John Hinckley, the attacker was waiting. When the first shot was fired, the agents immediately went into action, shoving Reagan into his bullet proof car, an agent lying on top of him, another standing in front and one assigned to watch the crowd spotting Hinckley.

The Service had dramatically improved its protection since the JFK assassination. Immediately after Dallas, open top limos were gone and armored ones took their place. Formal training was instituted and became increasingly rigorous after each incident with increasingly protective protocols implemented to keep threats at a distance. After the attempts on Ford’s life, new rules were put in place increasing the distance spectators had to be kept away. After Reagan’s shooting building entrances and exits were covered by using a garage loading dock or setting up a tent. For speeches bulletproof glass became standard and most significantly metal detectors were introduced to screen the audience.

The Clintons presented individual challenges to the agents and vice versa. Bill Clinton, like JFK, always wanted to get out and mingle with people stressing the agents on his detail. Also like JFK he frequently met with women on short “off the record” excursions or in his private office, although not up to JFK’s level. But in the 90s people and particularly the press were not inclined to look the other way as they did in the 60s. The agents, many of whom were married with girlfriends in the various cities they traveled through, did not reveal Clinton’s escapades, but some did reveal other personal details about the Clinton’s relationship such as a spat where Hillary threw a lamp at Bill. Hillary was furious when this became public. She and Bill hadn’t trusted the agents since they had seen the “Reelect Bush” stickers on their car bumpers. In turn the agents found Hillary cold and disdainful, a big change following the motherly Barbara Bush who baked them cookies. In 1997 some retired agents revealed to the press the lurid details of JFk’s womanizing. ABC ran a two-hour TV special on it. This put even more attention on Bill Clinton and now he was having an affair in the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Again retired agents spilled the beans, this time about Lewinsky’s private visits to Clinton, and current agents were forced to testify in a politically motivated criminal investigation.

9-11 found the agency unprepared. There was no way to defend the White House from air attack and no plan for how or where to secure Bush who was in Florida. The Service now had 4,000 people working for it, but it also had added providing protection for foreign embassies, the VP’s residence and special events. Agents were well trained with well defined protocols for shooting incidents, but had to respond ad hoc on 9-11. VP Cheney was in the White House, but his detail did not have access to the underground bunker designed to protect the president. If the plane that hit the Pentagon had made it to the White House, Cheney likely would have been killed. The Service’s command center was located in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House. It could have been taken out if the White House was hit. The command center would be moved, barriers put up around the White House, and more. But an old problem would resurface, bad behavior by the agents. The press uncovered a litany of adulterous sexual liaisons between agents and white house staff as well as embezzlement, theft, barroom brawls and sagging morale. The Service would be put in the new Homeland Security Department.

Obama received up to thirty death threats a day, four times the number prior presidents received. The Service had to take every precaution, and unlike some earlier cavalier presidents, Obama readily agreed. Still two incidents during the Obama years exposed significant vulnerabilities. In November 2011 a deranged man took out his semiautomatic rifle 750 yards away on a public street. He fired eight times at the White House, breaking a window near the president’s living room. Six other bullets hit the Obama residence. The Service said it was just random fire from a gang fight. But police interviewed an eyewitness who saw the man (later captured) shooting and the Service had to change its statement also noting the president wasn’t in town. But Michelle’s mother and daughter were in the residence at the time and Michelle wasn’t happy to hear that security wasn’t so tight when the president wasn’t there. The second incident was a fence climber who ran past the guards, pushed the front door open and ran up to the Obama residence, where luckily an agent was able to tackle him. The Service said he wasn’t armed, but he had a knife with a three-inch blade. In addition to an attempted coverup of lax security and numerous errors in the shooting incident, Leonnig lists nine separate security failures in the fence jumper incident.

The Republicans in Congress had a heyday with these incidents. Another reason Congress was loaded for bear was the Cartagena incident. Obama was attending a regional summit. A large contingent of Service and military personnel got there early as was the norm. But this beach town had a notorious red-light district which led to disputes when some of the johns wouldn’t pay their hookers. The girls notified the police. The police called the American embassy. Soon it was an international headline about the all-night boozing and 22 Service and military guys who took the hookers back to their rooms that night. Obama had to address it at the summit standing next to Columbia’s president. This was followed by another similar incident in Holland.

There were other incidents, many made public by Service employees who were angry about being disciplined or just to eliminate competitors for a promotion. Over the Obama years the Secret Service Director was let go and replaced twice. The last, Julia Pierson, was selected by Obama to be the first female director. She was soon undermined by leaks from her own subordinates. She wasn’t part of the old boy network and her attempts to hold subordinates accountable were deeply resented in a dysfunctional culture. Following more incidents and hearings in 2015 in which Rep. Jason Chaffetz tore into the new director, disgruntled agents dug into the Service’s files on Chaffetz. They found he had been turned down when he applied for a Secret Service job back in 2003. They spread that news casting Chaffetz as leading a vendetta against the Service. The leak soon was on twitter and widely reported.

With Trump’s election worse was to come. He polarized Service employees. Many were openly supportive with MAGA hats on their desks while others couldn’t stand Trump and felt intimidated. The Service also suffered from the enormous financial burden Trump put on it. In February 2017 another fence jumper wandered on White House grounds for seventeen minutes until he was found. Most of the security detection equipment didn’t work. The Service didn’t have money to hire enough agents or fix broken gear. Including Trump’s family 18 people were assigned agents. Trump and his children traveled frequently. Trump required the Service to secure Trump Tower, a 58-story skyscraper, which was very expensive. It cost $64,000 just to test and service the elevators and the Service had to pay for space there as well. Golf cart rentals at Mara Lago cost the Service $35,000 for the first three months of Trump’s presidency. The total cost for a single Trump visit to Mara Lago including Coast Guard and military protection was $3.2 million per visit. Obama cost the government $97 million for travel for the eight years of his presidency. Trump’s travel cost taxpayers $20 million in just the first two months. The Service had other duties besides protecting the president and his family: Counterfeiting and numerous other financial crimes, protecting foreign missions and dignitaries in the U.S., and protecting designated special events. Without a significant increase in funding money for Trump’s and his eighteen-member family’s travel meant money taken from these other responsibilities.

After the latest fence jumper incident, Homeland Security Secretary General John Kelly convinced Trump to hire a general he knew as the new director to straighten up the service. Unable to get funding to improve equipment or hire sufficient staff the general was unable to accomplish anything. Being brought in from the outside he was deeply resented by his subordinates. In April 2019 Trump selected a new director from within the Service and promoted an agent on his detail to a presidential advisor position senior to the director, the sole criteria in both cases being their personal loyalty to him. Trump now had confirmed loyalists controlling the Service. Thus, the Service had no problem clearing out protesters from Lafayette Square in 2020, so Trump could hold out a bible in front of a church for a photo op. The Service remained polarized as some cheered on the January 6 insurrectionists.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,821 reviews12.9k followers
May 6, 2022

Always one to gravitate towards books of a political nature, I have come to enjoy those penned by Carol Leonnig. While I have read some of her collaborative work previously, this was my first foray into her independent writing, which was just as captivating and revealing. Many would think of the Secret Service as the protection detail behind the scenes, saving those of some political ilk from threats and keeping the riffraff away. However, Leonnig explores not only the new ‘poltiical protection’ role of the Secret Service, but also some of the gaffes in which they have been involved, which brought some unwanted attention to the role. Leonnig does a masterful job in her explanations and description analysis of the Secret Service, choosing to educate the reader, rather than use it as a tell-all or smear piece.

The Secret Service are by no means a new arm of the US Government, but their role as political protectors has really come to fruition in the last number of decades. Carol Leonnig explores when the shift took place to move the Secret Service from primarily involved in the realm of the US Treasury to being point people for political figures, especially the President of the United States (POTUS). The significant shift can be traced back to the Kennedy Administration, though this was also the start of the major gaffes in which the Service found itself, namely the Kennedy assassination in 1963.

Leonnig moves through each of the presidents from Kennedy to Trump with some cursory explanation of the evolving role of members of the Service, as well as some detailed discussion of any major assassination attempt made or plot revealed regarding POTUS. Leonnig opens the reader’s eyes to just how busy the Service tends to be, chasing down leads and keeping things straight for all those involved in the preparation of trips, both foreign and domestic. In addition to protection, Leonnig explores some of the ‘secret keeping’ roles that members of the Service had to keep, from Obama’s smoking to Clinton’s nightly rendezvous with a variety of women. While readers may not be shocked to read about this, substantiating media rumours solidifies much of what is known about a number of those holding the highest office in the land.

In the latter portion of the book, Leonnig explores the three most recent Administrations with additional analysis, including some of the more scandalous sides of the Secret Service. Leonnig seeks not to out those who worked on the various details, but to offer some substantial explanation as to just how rampant issues and abuse of power can be, which may not be well known to the reader. Use of taxpayer dollars to drink, cavort, and put the protected at risk because of a lack of acuteness cannot be lost on what comes out in the narrative, though there is a need to understand that these men (and some women) are human and will likely ‘play while the cat is away’. Leonnig offers up some raw and straightforward explanations from what she has been able to garner, putting the Secret Service under the microscope to se how effective they have been and could be into the future.

No shock to the attentive reader, when it comes to Trump, things within the Secret Service took a highly political direction. As Leonnig discusses, Trump uses the Service as a private security force and made sure the taxpayer footed the additional bill. Using blind loyalty to ensure job security, in an organisation that is to be apolitical, Trump soiled things to the point of making another mockery of a core American institution. Leaving bitterness and destruction in his wake, Trump left the Service divided and forced America to clean up the mess, riddled in falsehoods.

I was not looking for a tell-all book or something that would seek to dismantle the structure of the Secret Service. Carol Leonnig did not provide that either. Instead, she left the reader feeling well-informed about what is taking place within the Service and how the machine works, both when well-oiled and as the wheels are falling off. Her frank narrative opens up many questions, but also seeks to educate the reader as to what is going on, which proves highly educational. Seen mostly as being the wallflowers they hope to be, members of the Secret Service have a special role, particularly when protecting POTUS on a day to day basis. However, in being given that responsibility, there is a high standard that must be met, something that Leonnig discusses on a regular basis. Lengthy chapters offer great insight into what has been going on and how things have evolved (and perhaps devolved) since the Kennedy Administration. Leonnig takes the reader on a ride like no other and substantiates much of what she says through interviews and detailed research. As with the other books of hers I have read, I leave this experience with a great deal more knowledge and a thirst to obtain more, as time permits.

Kudos, Madam Leonnig, for shedding some light on this most interesting topic. I look forward to reading more of your work soon.

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Profile Image for Lyn.
63 reviews32 followers
July 23, 2022
This was an excellent book about the Secret Service from the time of John F Kennedy through Trump. I learned so much from this book, written by a 3-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist. She wrote about so many detailed incidents regarding danger to the Presidents that she could only have learned from insider knowledge. The book was fascinating and I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Kristine .
693 reviews167 followers
August 14, 2022
I am always intrigued by books that look into Elite Public Sector Jobs that little is known about. I was always under the impression that the Secret Service Agency, in charge of protecting the US President and his/her family was elite and highly professional. This is always supposed to be an apolitical job, you serve to protect the person elected to office. This is a very timely book right now considering the political turmoil going on right now in the US.

Unfortunately, the Secret Service has some serious security problems and has had a culture where nepotism and loyalty to those who got you the job matters, not the competence of the individual being promoted. The agency has evolved over time and the book starts with President Kennedy being Assassinated when the agency was much more professional. It was a very sad day and the agents felt responsible for not saving Kennedy even though it was not possible to do so.

Carol Leonnig does an exceptional job writing and researching this book. I had the book and also the Audio 🎧, which really worked well. Although the Secret Service are supposed to be completely neutral, of course that is not fully possible and many leaned toward being Republican. This is fine of course, the limitation would be that you could not let your personal political beliefs interfere with doing your job properly. It was really interesting to get a glimpse into the life of the officers and how much was involved in protecting a President. Long hours and travel occur and many are dedicated to doing a fine job. Each President from Kennedy on was profiled and I enjoyed learning of the relationship the agents had with each President and their family. There was also inside gossip I had never heard before, such as President Clinton wanting to go to the YMCA to Exercise, when really the Secret Service was not inside the facility because Clinton was actually meeting up with women to have affairs with. The Secret Service most liked George H.W. Bush and Barbara, since they went out of their way to make them feel welcome and would often invite them to be a part of a bar-b-cue they were having. Barbara felt motherly, always looking out for them and sending them home with food since many had not eaten all day. People are people after all, and when you are in close proximity to someone different types of relationships form. Since President Trump had the Secret Service constantly traveling to play golf and also attend to his large family, I assumed most would not like him. Yet, that was not the case, many in the Secret Service were conservative and had similar feeling to the ones Trump espoused, whether decent or not.

The book also profiles terrifying incidents where the President had attempts to kill him happen that were mostly unheard of. The agents said each time an incident occurred it would help them learn something to look out for in the future to prevent an incident from recurring. This was true certainly true for Kennedy and Johnson, but when Nixon was in Office he wanted the Secret Service to cross the line and do active spying on the democrats. Nixon ended up having to resign, but this was a time that also made the Secret Service lose credibility. The agency seemed to bounce back with President Reagan and officers did put themselves in harms way to protect the President. It was not widely known how close Reagan was to being assassinated.

The problem with the Secret Service highlighted the need for change that just wasn’t occurring. There were many embarrassing incidents such as using prostitutes and drinking very heavily the day before a President was arriving in a country. There were also serious problems with security and only luck keep a President or his family from being hurt or killed. This was a Boys Club that needed to change with the times and often more Professionalism was needed. Communication often did not happen. Agents spoke among themselves, but would not share the information with the Secret Service Director. A serious issue is that the way the Secret Service functions is an Agent speaks of his first promotion as being ‘made’, then loyalty to these bosses and teammates was essential. That was how the agency worked, not on good planning or making tough decisions. This often meant very serious breaches such as a man was in Michelle Obama’s room in Disneyland and with Trump in office, a man jumped the fence and was casually walking around the White House Grounds for 15 minutes were not addressed. This system has fostered a bad environment which places those in need of protection in serious danger. The Agency needs Better Leadership, Updated Technology, More Money, and a Clear Role.

Riveting and Informative Book. Definitely Recommend. It was long, but I read it fast and having the Audio got through this book in a day. I enjoyed some aspects and was appalled at others. Overall, though thought the author, a writer for The Washington Post did an Excellent and Fair Job discussing The Secret Service and areas we can not afford to keep continuing as was done before, while honoring the basic job that is difficult and often thankless.
Profile Image for Suzi.
1,012 reviews12 followers
May 19, 2021
I read most of this last night and seven other people have holds on it so I'll return it and finish later. What I read made me sick enough. I bought Secret Service dogs and realized there were problems with SS then. (SS Secret Service)
Anyway, the Trump years were very expensive for us taxpayers and the SS was not very efficient. Unmasking during the pandemic was a big set back with many agents ill or on quarantine. Many SS members are Republicans and some are huge Trump supporters. Biden needed his old detail from Obama's admin back. I read an interview with Michelle O where she stated how fearful she was for her family and I now see why. Continued SS protection for the Obamas may not be as thorough as necessary.
Profile Image for Madelon.
803 reviews10 followers
May 27, 2021
Carol Leonnig writes as only a journalist does… straightforward, pulling no punches, and highly readable. Her descriptions of the Kennedy White House bring new light to the way JFK operated as a man, a politician, and president. Her description of the assassination, as seen through the eyes of the Secret Service agents in the President's detail, is perhaps the most chilling I've read. I was a junior in high school when Kennedy was shot… all these years later Leonnig brought me to tears.

The road to the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is paved by a Congress that treated the service guarding the leader of the free world as an afterthought because of the misapprehension that actually protecting his person might seem like he has a "royal guard." The United States of America has a President not a King. It took the assassination of four presidents to start to change that.

Through the eyes of Secret Service agents, we get a glimpse into the personalities of presidents and their families. I was really surprised that Jimmy Carter didn't want those in his protection detail to talk to him unless absolutely necessary. I honestly don't know what to make of that given his swing that hammer, build a house persona we see today. On the other hand, George H. W. Bush, or more specifically Barbara Bush, included the members of his detail in family gatherings making him very popular with those protecting him.

The first half of the book takes you, the reader, through the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln (1865), James A. Garfield (1881), and William McKinley (1901), the founding of the Secret Service (during the Lincoln administration to protect United States currency), the assassination of John F. Kennedy (1963) , 9/11, and the George W. Bush years. Let that sink in. Since 2008 we have had two presidents serve their terms in office, and now have a president in office for only a few months. The Secret Service has existed since 1865 (and has protected presidents since 1901) yet twelve plus years (give or take a campaign season or two) needs the other half of the book. You do the math.

Barack Obama presented the Secret Service with the challenge of protecting the most threatened president in American History. Although many of the service's bad actions were covered in the news, the reality is much worse. Personally, I worried every time President Obama appeared in a large crowd without knowing just how undermanned and underfunded the agency tasked with his safety was.

The transition from Obama to Trump changed the Secret Service into a more political and politically fraught organization. The trend backward was profound.

The second half of the book covers just two presidents and provides a look at a Secret Service both flawed and excellent. It is unfortunate that the flaws surround the most important detail with which it is tasked… protecting the life of the United States President, and by extension, protecting democracy's most public symbol.

ZERO FAIL: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service is a modern history that takes readers through more than 150 years of an agency created but unfunded, and one that is still underfunded today. Like our infrastructure, this organization needs a complete overhaul from policy to hiring to technology. The book ends with January 6, 2021 detailing the part the Secret Service played in the insurrection both as protectors of Vice President Pence and as supporters of Trump's claims of victory. As much as I might hate to say this, it would not surprise me that other critical government agencies are run in a similar fashion.

In her acknowledgements, Carol Leonnig offers praise to agents who work tirelessly, sometimes waiting months for overtime pay. It is important to remember that a book such as this presents the possibilities of reform in a necessary and positive light. There is hope that the Congress will see to funding, that hiring practices will be brought in line with the need for diversity, and that agents will get the time off to which they are entitled and get paid for their exhausting overtime hours.

ZERO FAIL is well worth the time you will invest in reading it. It is a non-fiction page-turner every bit as readable as any thriller on the market today.
Profile Image for Erin.
121 reviews
June 1, 2021
This was fine, but I think she laid too much at the Trump Administration’s feet when she spent 17+ hours before getting to Trump explaining what a dumpster fire of an organization the Secret Service was/is. My main take away is that it’s quite miraculous that Obama is alive.
Profile Image for Christine.
109 reviews68 followers
February 5, 2022
A fabulous insightful book on one of the most famous (or infamous) government bureaucracy in America. The US Secret Service is known world wide as the greatest security force in the world, and yet, this book reveals decades long mismanagement, lack of purpose (yes, really!), and mistrust between the agents on the ground and top brass. From Presidents Lincoln through Biden, the author does fantastic research and reporting of what the agency has gotten right, where they have failed miserably and the problems that still engulf the agency today.

It’s a wide span of American Presidential history, but the author handles it with aplomb bringing the reader along with a concise account of the men and women who daily take the ultimate vow in guarding the life of the leader of the free world.
Profile Image for Steven Z..
598 reviews122 followers
June 27, 2021
The significant role played by the United States Secret Service in American history cannot be denied. Be it the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the failed attempts on the lives of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, few doubted the commitment of its agents to their craft and maintaining the safety of those in their charge. However, during the last decade or two questions have arisen over its job performance and as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonning points out in her new book, ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE the actions or inaction of the agency question their effectiveness and how lucky they have been with the numerous mistakes and coverups that have come to light that no major disaster can be laid at its doorstep.

Leonning’s monograph examines the decline in the agency’s readiness and for some supervisors and agents a cavalier attitude toward their own behavior. Relying on interviews with over 180 sources, including many current and former agency personnel that includes field agents, directors, cabinet officials and members of Congress it is clear that the agency’s overall readiness is poor. Leonning’s purpose in writing the book was to uncover why the agency employed outdated equipment and engaged in “spotty training.” Leonning learned that the organization was spread too thin, was drowning in new missions, and was wrought with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust between the rank and file and leadership. She asks the important question, how long will dumb luck pass for competence?

Her focus is how the agency went from an elite, hard working band of patriots that was committed to protecting future presidents in the wake of the Kennedy assassination , to a “frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence.” Further she questions how the Service went from a close-knit group that prided itself on nonpartisanship to one used by presidents for craven political means. Lastly, why is it that it has such difficulty in hiring people fast enough to cover departures and is seen as the most hated place to work in the federal government?

Leonning traces the development of the Secret Service from its inception after the Civil War through the end of the Trump administration. She provides numerous vignettes that are both entertaining and troubling. For example, Kennedy’s penchant to sneak away for dalliances, Lyndon Johnson’s paranoia after the assassination that agent’s loyalties to the deceased president would override their role as his protector, or Richard Nixon’s desire to use the assassination attempt on George Wallace as a tool to enhance himself politically by linking Arthur Bremer to the McGovern campaign and Senator Edward Kennedy.

If there is one conclusion the reader must come to grips with is that the Secret Service is broken. Her carefully crafted narrative is informative as she delves into numerous examples of agent and supervisor malfeasance. What emerges is a service that condoned breaches in the agency’s protocols for behavior by agents and supervisors dealing with drinking, sexual escapades, and downright stupidity for decades as higher ups rarely called offenders on the carpet and discipline for offenses was rare.

Leonning takes the reader inside the inner workings of presidential protection and what is clear is that the job is an arduous one where marriages and families of agents suffered due to the time commitment which is also a function of an underfunded and poorly run organization which put career goals and coverups ahead of conforming to regulations. A major issue are the different factions that existed and continue to exist within the service. It is clear that for women and people of color the career path is made much harder due to racial and misogynistic attitudes that have existed for decades. A case in point is the plight of Julia Pierson who replaced Mark Sullivan as Director of the Secret Service after a major scandal stemming from advance team partying with prostitutes and excessive drinking in 2011 in Cartagena, Columbia. It appears supporters of Sullivan actively worked to undermine Pierson, the first female head of the Service, after a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales managed to jump the White House fence and actually gain entrance into the White House itself.

Constructive criticism of leadership or policy was usually seen as a threat by higher ups. Examples include the Charles J. Baserap affair. Baserap, a former agent prepared a forty-two page survey for his superiors in January 2007 entitled, “The Secret Service State of the Union” which after surveying numerous personnel concluded that the White House security net was vulnerable to attack. Agents were not trained to deal wit simultaneous attacks on the White House complex, and they lacked weaponry to thwart a lethal attack on the president and his family. Baserap also focused on routine staff shortages, burned-out officers, and the lack of respect by supervisors for their “brother agents.” Another example reflects Loenning’s assiduous research centers on Greg Stokes, another former agent involved in the Cartagena imbroglio was threatened with termination for behavior that was condoned for decades. In his defense Stokes began to release some very uncomfortable examples of Service hypocrisy and after Supervisor Rafael Prieto committed suicide leadership felt it was because of Stokes’ actions and he was fired. The double standard by leadership permeates the narrative.

By 2012 Leonning points out that partisanship became much more intense in a Senate Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and his research assistant Rachel Weaver. Their goal was to embarrass the Obama administration as much as possible. There were a number of agency screw ups during the administration of the most endangered president in history. On November 11, 2011, eight shots fired at the White House by Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, and Mark Sullivan and his top deputies denied it had occurred at the outset and later lied to a Congressional hearing. In 2014 as Obama was visiting the CDC in Atlanta when a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with the president without being properly vetted. It is no wonder that privately Obama questioned whether the Secret Service could actually protect his family, but at the same time Senator Johnson wanted to link the White House to the Secret Service’s incompetence when Service leadership repeatedly met with Obama and assured the necessary changes needed were being implemented.

In her exploration of the Secret Service Leonning does not skimp in her coverage bringing out details dealing with Watergate, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and numerous other topics including the politicization of the Secret Service by the Trump administration who used it as a political arm as well as a means of making money for his organization as Trump’s persistent travels to Mar-a-Lago left the Secret Service operating on a shoestring. Financially the Trump administration has been a disaster for the Secret Service. First, Trump Tower must be taken care of as at the outset Trump declared it his primary residence even if he visits only three times a year and switched his residency to Florida. The result is the Service paid the Trump Organization $63 million for rent and utilities so it could secure the Tower. Second, each time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago with his entourage it costs $400,00 for protection. In addition, Trump travels to all his other properties rarely spending the weekend at the White House so he can play golf costing the Secret Service millions. In addition, the Trump extended family of eighteen people must secured as they travel all over the world. Politically, the Secret Service became an arm of the Trump administration as it was used to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so Trump could take a walk and show how “tough” he was as he held a bible upside down in front of a church. Also, the use of the Secret Service at rallies and what made it worse is that the Service was split between pro and anti-Trump supporters which was against department protocols. Finally, once Joe Biden was elected President Trump refused to grant Secret Service protection for the President-elect for over a month.

It will be interesting to see how the Secret Service reforms itself in order to restore its reputation but the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection that one Secret Service agent called the armed protestors patriots seeking to undo an illegitimate election does not seem promising. In the end I agree with Rosa Brooks’ review of ZERO FAIL in the May 14, 2021, edition of the Washington Post as she writes that the book is important, “one that will ruffle feathers in need of ruffling and that will be useful to legislators, policymakers and historians alike. Leonnig’s careful documentation of decades of neglect and malfeasance buttresses her observation that the Secret Service has become more and more of a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Despite its Hollywood-enhanced reputation for squeaky-clean professionalism, the Secret Service is just like every other organization made up of humans, which is to say that it’s a bit of mess: It’s sloppy, hostile to newcomers and new ideas, and even its most dedicated and hard-working agents are constantly playing catch-up in the face of ceaselessly evolving threats.

But, Leonnig reminds us, ordinary human messiness isn’t quite good enough when it comes to something as vital as presidential security. Presidents, and the voters who elect them, have the right to expect more than an old boys club that sometimes seems to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the president.”
2,004 reviews11 followers
August 11, 2021
This is a hefty book, both in terms of its size and its content. Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post and a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, brings meticulous research to this effort, describing the steady downward spiral of the Secret Service, once an elite organization respected for its professional and competent agents, to become one plagued by scandal and security failures. It is riddled with infighting, inconsistent leadership and poorly trained agents in insufficient numbers to cover its mandate.

Leonnig carefully details the history of the service, divided her narrative in five parts, covering the time from President Kennedy to President Trump. She describes the challenges and failures during those time periods and gives detailed attention to the long list of the major crisis points including the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963; the shooting of George Wallace during the 1972 presidential campaign, of Ronald Regan in 1981 and Gerald Ford in 1975; Nixon’s illegal wire-tapping scheme in 1973; the explosion of a truck bomb at the World Trade Center in 1993; the Monica Lewinski scandal in 1998; the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and the “Hookergate” scandal in 2012. Each shook the nation’s faith in the nation’s security system.

The challenge for the service has always been to provide as much security for the President as possible without interfering with the President's visibility and his connection with voters. Each president acted differently under the eyes of the service, some purposefully choosing to dodge their protection. Kennedy and Clinton were two that escaped on a regular basis to meet women for trysts, with Clinton co-opting agents to keep his liaisons outside his marriage from both his wife and the public. Nixon used the service to spy on various individuals including his opponents and used the secret service budget to write off expensive renovations on his homes under the guise of “security needs”. Carter was respectful to the agents while George W.H. Bush and his wife Barbara treated them as extended family. The least popular First Lady was Hillary Clinton, who agents described as brusque, cold and rude, known for her foul mouth and wicked temper.

Trump’s campaign for the Presidency brought very different problems. During his rallies, he fueled anger in the audience. People were pushed and shoved and fights broke out as the crowds often armed, arrived ready to rumble with dissenters. When he became President, Trump drained the secret service budget with numerous trips to his resorts to play golf, charging inflated prices to house his required entourage, with expenses paid to the Trump organization, enriching his own private business. The cost of his protection was doubled as his wife Melania often chose to live separately. Trump manipulated and politicized the service to such an extent there were questions whether agents were fully committed to protecting Joe Biden after he won the presidency and Trump’s agents were reassigned

Interspersed in her praise for agents who saved presidents’ lives, Leonnig details the difficult life of an agent. At times it could be exciting getting to see rock stars, celebrities, international leaders and witnessing historic events. The downside was standing for long periods, bored but required to stay on alert often in the cold and rain; the requirement to work overtime or back-to-back shifts, miss family events and holidays and be ready for duty at a moment’s notice if the President’s plans changed. After long hours of duty, agents would party and drink heavily at the end of their workday. After the assassination of President Kennedy and the Warren Commission that followed, this kind of behavior became part of the public record when it was revealed the agents protecting the president that fateful day had been out partying the night before. Another incident during the Obama years hit the headlines when his advance team preparing for the President’s visit to Cartagena in 2012 spent time partying and bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms.

Leonnig's goal in exposing this information is to signal the need for reform. She has spoken to many agents who are frustrated by their desire to do their work but never given what they need to do their job, their numbers never enough to support their mission. Leonnig describes a long list of problems: the lack of new security technology, the merry-go-round of appointments to the leadership position, advancement within the service based on loyalty rather than competence, the tolerance of bad and even criminal behavior by both agents and supervisors and a culture of boozing, womanizing and misbehavior that is tolerated and pushed under the rug. She points to the need for a complete overhaul of the service. There are wounded, dead presidents and several near misses to prove her point and startling evidence that good luck often played a major role in avoiding tragedy. She draws several conclusions. The role of the service needs to be reconsidered and given adequate resources to support its mission; long term planning must replace waiting for a tragic event to make changes; the rigid management structure fuels resentment and needs to be reexamined and personal misconduct must be identified and addressed consistently and fairly at all levels.

Leonnig deserves praise for her meticulous research, supported by pages of notes at the end of the book. Although those details add depth, it produces a narrative filled with so much information it is easy to get lost in the midst of it. She will shock much of the American public with the information she shares and will surely ruffle some feathers in the process. Although much of the focus is on the lack of manpower and resources, there is also the issue of attitude. Even when agents had technology available to them, it was often turned off, broken and not repaired or improperly used. Agents arrived at work bleary eyed from heavy partying; superiors turned a blind eye to illicit relationships within the service; visits with prostitutes in foreign countries was expected and tolerated; incidents of bad behavior, everything from racism to sharing pornography on work computers to stealing and drunk driving were only mildly censured, if at all.

We cannot expect the Secret Service to do its job without competent well-trained personnel, strong leadership free of political bias, the tools to support their work and the cooperation of those they are trying to protect. Hopefully Leonnig’s work will start the conversation to generate the necessary change. Lives depend on it. The service is broken and needs to be fixed.
Profile Image for Linda Galella.
499 reviews57 followers
May 18, 2021
Investigative Reporting Takes A Detour

I haveappreciated other books by Carol Leonnig because she reports fairly and mostly without personal bias. That’s not my opinion of this effort, “Zero Fail”.

Beginning with her information on Kennedy, it does not agree with what I have come to understand is the most accepted information regarding his relationship with his Secret Service detail. Opinions do differ and information does change over the years, but her facts aren’t ringing true for me.

Johnson, Nixon, Regan, Carter, Bush - these presidents all had their own special needs for Secret Service intervention, (some much more than others!), and the book is historical and anecdotal in its reporting of the evolution of this organization. I’d forgotten some of the incidents even tho’ I’ve lived thru them all. During these years there’s lots of growing and changing pains for the organization as the country does the same but there’s also an air of decorum and pride. Enter Clinton.

Changes in the Secret Service during Clinton’s presidency are shocking, much like he was. It became a boys club, a frat house that traveled internationally; a national embarrassment. Quite frankly, based on information provided to Leonnig, I cannot imagine why anyone wants to serve in this thankless capacity.

Bushes and Obama are slightly better but not by much. 9/11 is a significant drain on the organization and the economic down turn withholds much needed resources and technology upgrades for years. There are an host of events to read about in these chapters that had me cringing.

Leonnig is able to report all of these issues from both Republican and Democratic presidents and remain neutral until she reaches the last chapter on Trump. All professional distance disappears. It’s like reading MSNBC or CNN. I should have stopped at the 84% mark. Most of what she says is media hyperbole and not her well researched prose. Sadly, Leonnig is a victim of her own industry and this effort is diminished because of it📚
Profile Image for Josh.
132 reviews26 followers
May 31, 2021
Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig is a book about the Secret Service and their primary mission of protecting the President of the United States. Zero Fail has major problems as a book. First, Leonnig writes the book as a series of newspaper articles rather than as a coherent narrative. As a book, Zero Fail should contain threads introducing an issue, documenting the issue throughout the history of the Secret Service and discussing the root cause of the issue and potential resolutions. Second, this book contains little original research. Zero Fail was an excellent opportunity to examine the process behind providing effective security. Zero Fail lacks interviews with any of the key players nor any security professionals. Leonnig makes it clear that there are major problems with how the Secret Service executes its mission. Leonnig spends zero time answering the question, what is causing these problems and how do you fix them? Lastly, there are a number of inaccurate facts which reduce the credibility of the book as a whole.

Zero Fail highlights everything wrong with investigative journalism. If you want to have a journalist shock you with facts about a government agency, then Zero Fail is the book for you. If you want a book containing any real substance, look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Nick.
335 reviews32 followers
January 10, 2022
This isn't a history, rather as the title states a journalistic documentation of the Secret Service's successes and failures from JFK to Trump. Readers should know and understand Carol Leonnig is an investigative reporter, not a historian. The style in which the book is written reflects the journalistic influence, reading as a collection of investigative reports strung together over a period of time vs. an actual study or history. However, for the purpose written it is a good and informative read. For an informative books such that it is it unfortunately sorely lacks source information - again just like a newspaper investigative article. There are notes for the chapters at the end of the book, but their organization and layout is the strangest I've ever seen. Instead of identifying the presence of a note in the inline body text with a superscripted number, the author lists the notes in a section at the end of the book where it references the page number for which the note applies. Hence, the only way the reader obtains the note associated with the particular part of the book is not while reading the appropriate section, but going to the note section and cross correlating the page number with the appropriate section in the book - crazy and a bit irritating if you are using this as a source for further research.
Profile Image for Donna.
1,520 reviews80 followers
September 16, 2022
I never knew the presidents, their families, and high government officials were in so much danger due to the carousing lifestyle of the secret service agents and the refusal of the government to fully fund the agency and upgrade their technology. Each failure (Kennedy shot, Ford shot at, Reagan shot, appalling failures during Obama's term) caused the agency to reevaluate their protocols, but they never seemed able to overcome the good ol' boy network and inter-breeding of directors and managers. There seemed to be a strict code of silence about the misbehaviors of one's friends and a leaking of information about one's, well, not friends. The whole racket was appalling. Of course, when you get to Trump all hell breaks loose as one can imagine.
Profile Image for Maureen Grigsby.
899 reviews
May 21, 2023
This was an outstanding review of the Secret Service, starting with the Kennedy detail. After every assassination attempt, the Secret Service goes over mistakes and makes changes to better protect the people they are assigned to. Unfortunately, this organization is a very large bureaucracy that hasn’t modernized well. We all remember seeing multiple news stories about drinking, incompetence, and reckless behavior by the Secret Service, culminating in some appalling lapses in recent years. Carol Leonnig has written a non-fiction book that reads like fiction. Absolutely excellent!
Profile Image for Robert Intriago.
733 reviews5 followers
January 26, 2023

It was truly fun to read a book so well written that was not a work of fiction but read as one. I had to force myself to put it down. The author gives a brief synopsis of the history of the Secret Service (SS) before she picks up the story of the SS beginning with JFK. The best part is not the history of protecting the president but the intimate portrait of the presidents themselves. I was amazed by some of the things the author was able to uncover through her interviews. The kindness of the George and Barbara Bush presidency. The paranoia of Nixon and Hillary’s foul language. The shooting of George Wallace and Ronald Regan. There are also some hilarious accounts of Bill Clinton and John Kennedy’s sexual escapades. I really think you will enjoy this well written and researched book.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,864 reviews1,359 followers
August 18, 2021
Given the sheer amount of material that Carol Leonnig has to work with in Zero Fail, this is an impressively fast-paced look at the U.S. Secret Service from its origins right through to the present day. While the agency's motto is "Worthy of Trust and Confidence," Leonnig demonstrates that a combination of issues—from systemic incoherence to mismanagement, from mission creep to overwork to an obnoxious white male fratboy culture—mean that it's anything but. I finished this book surprised that no American president has been assassinated since JFK, and not surprised (but depressed) at how entrenched authoritarian sympathies are within the Secret Service. Leonnig doesn't go so far as to call for the whole institution to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up, but I can't imagine what else could be done to salvage it.
Profile Image for Vince.
10 reviews1 follower
December 17, 2020
This author is amazing! Her books are gold. Best Secret Service authors: Carol Leonnig, Vincent Palamara, and Dan Emmett.
70 reviews1 follower
May 24, 2021
This is an amazing read and it’s quite shocking. Anyone interested in politics must read this book. I especially hope that the current administration reads the book as it’s obvious that the Secret Service needs to be completely revamped in order to keep people safe. The book has a broad reach in reviewing all the previous presidential assassinations and the security breaches that allowed them to occur, and the tenure of the modern presidents and their relationship with the Secret Service. It’s all very shocking and disturbing on so many levels. In many ways it’s just disheartening. It will take a long time to get over the reality of government as protracted in this book. However, it’s a major public service that’s long overdue.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
683 reviews398 followers
December 19, 2021
Fascinating history of the Secret Service from Kennedy to Trump and all the gaffes and scandals in between.

An engaging read, parts of it were pretty shocking. Another great reminder that just because something is official or government run does not guarantee its quality or efficacy.

If you liked House of Cards, you'll definitely like this book.

"The Secret Service was born out of a fundamental tension that lies at the heart of American democracy: symbolism versus security."
60 reviews1 follower
June 20, 2021
Throughout the book I thought the author did a great job with research and sticking to the facts. However in the end, especially the very lengthy epilogue she ruined her credibility with me by letting her personal politics overshadow her factual accounting that she did throughout the rest of the book. I can’t recommend it.
Profile Image for Courtney Ferriter.
485 reviews23 followers
April 18, 2022
** 4 stars **

Really interesting overview of the founding of the U.S. Secret Service and major incidents in the Service's history from JFK through Trump. For a long time, the Service was an Old (White) Boys' network and has had a number of prominent public embarrassments due to frat boy-like behavior while on the job (I'm so glad, for example, that my taxpayer dollars could go toward funding Secret Service agents who got wasted and solicited sex workers in Colombia or who accompanied the Trump sons on numerous company trips to Dubai). Of particular interest were the Obama and Trump years, which were more detailed than the accounts of previous administrations. Like the military, the Secret Service seems like a fundamentally patriarchal and conservative institution that is slow to adapt and often more reactive than proactive in implementing changes.

Would recommend if you enjoy nonfiction history, especially about U.S. politics/government. I listened to the audiobook and thought the author (Carol Leonnig) and the primary narrator (Maggi-Meg Reed) both did a nice job with the narration. It's definitely a commitment, though, as the audiobook clocks in at 20.5 hours, but I found the book quite interesting and informative, even if at times groan-inducing or maddening.
Profile Image for Florence.
835 reviews11 followers
January 22, 2023
Seeing those burly, young men guarding the President of the United States had always been a reassuring sight. This book wrecked that comforting image. Tracing the history of the Secret Service from the period after Lincoln's assassination up to the turbulent Trump years, Carol Leonnig has revealed some shocking facts.

I remember the revelations of drunken Agents partying with prostitutes during a Presidential trip to Cartagena, Columbia a few years back. They embarrassed the Obama administration on an international stage and imperiled security. The newspapers said it was a one-off dereliction of duty. Prompted by Agency spokesmen, they said it would never happen again. That was a lie. The Secret Service had a culture of pardoning such incidents; looking the other way. Boys will be boys. There seems to be no evidence of reform, despite some earnest efforts.

In defense of the Agency, it has always struggled to maintain vital services with insufficient resources. Agents risk their lives on a daily basis to protect our government's leaders. It's a high stress occupation that takes a toll on personal lives. President Kennedy was assassinated under Secret Service watch. President Reagan was almost assassinated. Dangerous events keep on happening. There are fence jumpers that attempt to gain entrance to the White House grounds. One made it as far as the indoor stairs leading to the President's family residence. Each failure is publicized, analyzed and the Agency is lambasted. At times, on duty agents have been drawn into malicious interpersonal White House intrigue or used for political advantage. Trump bled the agency budget with frequent golf trips and outrageous rent charges for occupancy of his properties.

Surely we, as a nation, can do better. Non political professionalism, competent leadership, sufficient resources and strategic preparation are a dire need.
Profile Image for bup.
646 reviews65 followers
April 7, 2023
I read this for my book club. Many of the men in my book club are vets, so I thought this would sing the praises of the guys who are willing to lay down their lives to protect their charge.


What an eye-opener. The Secret Service, in Leonnig's telling, are all the cool boys from high school who thought rules didn't apply to them, and were usually right. The systemic toxicity in the organization has made it so that only luck has kept any successful assassinations from happening under their watch since JFK, with severe injuries to George Wallace and Ronald Reagan (Robert F. Kennedy didn't have Secret Service protection - his assassination caused policy to change to protect candidates).

It's not clear what can fix it, either. Each president has the privilege of choosing his personal detail, and each chooses agents with whom they have rapport. The budget for things like updating technology, hiring enough agents so that time off isn't routinely canceled, and the priority for changing from an old-boys-network for success within the agency just aren't there.

The only time it came close was during Obama's presidency, when he looked at solving endemic problems instead of just symptoms after a couple of bullets were shot through an upstairs window at the White House and nobody knew about it for days. But his choice for a start-fresh head of the agency had to take a fall after yet another scandal involving hookers or driving drunk or I-don't-remember-what among the agents in her charge.

And Trump's way of doing business, of course, only reinforced the it's-who-you-know-and-how-you-look-and-you-should-be-a-man way of doing business.

The service is broken. This is great rage porn.
744 reviews19 followers
September 9, 2021
Until sometime after the 2016 election, the author describes the Secret Service as being a more or less competent branch of the government which screwed up from time to time but not in a super serious way. Okay, so some off-duty agents partied with some hookers in South America and, a couple of crazy guys jumped the fence and got into the White House. Well, an agency that's been around for over 100 years is going to have some history.
Now, after DJT was elected...different story. That part you have to read. The huge problem which probably still exists is that many, maybe most of the agents were huge Trump supporters, believe the election was stolen, and tacitly supported the January 6 to-do. How you right that situation and bring the Secret Service back to being non-political is a problem beyond my pay grade.
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