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What I’d say if the Secret Service bothered me again

Aug 09, 20114 mins
Data and Information Security

Thinking back to the Secret Service grilling I experienced a year ago, there are some things I would have done differently.

The column I did a year ago was written on fresh, raw emotion. The incident had only happened a couple hours before. That being the case, I’m surprised, when reading it back, that a hotter temper isn’t present. It’s an almost cold assessment of what it’s like to be grilled by the U.S. Secret Service.

Normally, after an experience like that, the temper flares during the still-fresh replay. Then, after a year of hindsight, a stoic, cooler view emerges.

This time, it’s the opposite.

I think I was too kind to the Secret Service in that first column. I was, after all, doing nothing wrong. I behaved no differently than most tourists when walking by the White House as Marine One is about to take off. The human thing to do is stare, wait to see the lift off and take a picture or two.

They questioned me like a common thug, accusing me of being a terrorist on a surveillance mission. Had they done a background check from the very beginning, they would have seen a clean record. Three months earlier, my family and I had been thoroughly checked out by the Secret Service so we could take a private tour of the West Wing.

We were allowed to walk out to the Rose Garden and peer inside the Oval Office. We even got a quick peek into the Situation Room. Now I was being accused of terrorist activity.

Yeah, I should have talked back a little more.

Let’s look at what they said and how I responded, as reflected in the original column. I’ll italicize the old parts and then insert what I should have said — and would probably say today.

I showed him the photos I shot on my BlackBerry. He didn’t like that there was only one shot of the White House and several of Marine One. A history buff taking only one shot of the White House and several of something (the chopper) that isn’t a piece of history?

I noted that it’s not every day you get to see it land and take off. “You can Google it,” he said. “Yeah, but it’s different when it’s happening right there in front of you,” I said. “No it isn’t,” he shot back.

What I should have said: “My taxes pay for that chopper. If it’s taking off right in front of me, I should be able to take a picture. Countless tourists do it all the time without incident and I don’t see how this is different.”

“Why did you go into the Starbucks?” he asked.

What I should have said: Because it’s a free country.

The officers wanted to know who I had been talking to or texting on my BlackBerry that morning

What I should have said: Why don’t you call the numbers and find out?

Now, there are some things I don’t take back.

I still think these guys were just doing their jobs. It was a hectic, hot day in D.C. and the White House was swarming with activity. If they let one bad guy get by them and the bad guy does something stupid later on, that’s all that will matter in the eyes of their superiors.

One innocent guy getting hassled for 20 minutes wouldn’t rate a blip on their radar.

I still appreciate the job they do overall.

But as an innocent man, I should have made them work a little harder. Maybe they would have hauled me in and thrown me in a cell for two hours. Despite the visions of work swirling in my head that morning, I had nothing to do that couldn’t wait.

Ah, well.

It’s easy to say what you would have or should have said after the fact. What’s done is done.

I’ll tell you this, though: Next time I’m in Washington, the first thing I’m going to do is walk by the White House. And I’ll stand there as long as I want to.

Because, contrary to what these guys think, it’s my house, too.

–Bill Brenner

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