Last week, T&M’s Joe Russo, Senior Vice President of Executive Protection, was interviewed on Westchester’s WVOX radio about the most recent White House fence jumper. The intruder, later identified as Jonathan Tuan-Anh Tran, reportedly entered the White House grounds on the evening of March 10th and wandered the White House grounds for 17 minutes before being apprehended. WVOX’s Bob Marrone spoke with Mr. Russo, a former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), to learn how this could have happened and the challenges currently facing the USSS as it seeks to protect the White House grounds.
Mr. Russo was first asked about his own career with the USSS. He explained that during his 20-year career with the U.S. Secret Service, he spent the majority of his time in the New York field office with the exception of the four years he spent in Washington, D.C. He also said that he spent his final years of service as Special Agent in Charge of the Clinton Protective Division, where he was responsible for the overall security arrangements for former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Russo next spoke about the latest White House fence jumping incident. When asked if he was shocked by it, he explained that the White House fence actually gets jumped more often than many realize, adding that when he was stationed in Washington D.C. in the 1990’s, White House fence jumpers were almost a weekly occurrence. He said that while the fence infrastructure has not changed much since that time, the reporting on such incidents has increased, so that now virtually all breaches are reported in the media. Reflecting on this particular breach, he explained that there are cameras and sensors to monitor the grounds, but he said that clearly in this instance they were not sufficient. He further stated that while it is disturbing that the intruder was able to get as far as he did, “I’m sure the USSS inspection division is looking at it right now to figure out what exactly occurred.”
According to Mr. Russo, the challenges associated with protecting the White House grounds stem from both its vast size, 18 acres, and its owner, the National Parks Service. Because the White House is owned by the National Parks Service, he said that making changes to the property infrastructure for security reasons requires overcoming significant bureaucratic hurdles. “The USSS,” he explained, “has been battling for years to get enhancements and improvements, but everything has to go through the National Parks Service and that has been the challenge.” However, he said he thought improvements might be coming soon, stating “from what I understand, there are finally going to be some enhancements over the next year or two to make this impenetrable.”
Switching to more general questions about the USSS, Mr. Russo was next asked about the challenges of being a Special Agent and particularly whether the requirement to “take a bullet” for a protectee is emphasized in training. He explained that USSS training is less focused on taking a bullet for someone, but instead more on training and planning so that it never comes to that. As far as challenges associated with the job, he said that being a USSS Special Agent can be very hard on the family, as Special Agents are required to work long hours and travel frequently. This is further complicated, he explained, by the 25-year requirement for retirement. He said that when he began with the USSS, the retirement program required only 20 years of service, but that it has since been upped to 25 years, making it hard for the USSS to retain talented agents. Being a USSS Special Agent, he explained, is a “very difficult job to maintain for 25 years.” He further stated, “in my day, it was unheard of to leave the USSS, especially after 10-15 years, because you had a 20-year retirement. With the 25-year retirement, the agents now have 15 years on and they still have 10 to go. And so, if they want a little more stability with their lives, with their families, to stay in one place, and companies and corporations are soliciting them for their services and trying to pay them pretty good dollars, you see a lot of folks jumping ship.”
Mr. Russo concluded the interview discussing his current role as Senior Vice President of Executive Protection at T&M Protection Resources. He said that he came to T&M immediately after retiring from the USSS in 2004 to start the Executive Protection division. Launching with just one client, he said that today, the division boasts over 130-140 clients who utilize T&M’s Executive Protection services both domestically and internationally, for personal and business travel as well as special events. Many of T&M’s Executive Protection clients, he explained, also utilize and benefit from the diverse security, cyber, intelligence & investigative solutions provided by T&M’s other business divisions.