Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Carol Leonnig has been reporting on matters of national security for over two decades now, and in her recent work, Zero Fail, she puts all her years of learning and experience to use in an attempt to not only chronicle the development of the American Secret Service, but to also explain its more recent deluge of failures. Interviewing dozens of current and former agents, Leonnig tries to paint as clear a picture of a topic many would rather be swept under the rug.
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Carol Leonnig Dissects the Secret Service
Thanks in no small part to popular culture and selective declassification of information, we, the public, have largely formed a perception of the American Secret Service as being one of the best in the world. However, as those who have taken the time to explore the work of intelligence services around the globe know it’s a field rife with incompetence and failures, a topic Carol Leonnig explores in the United States in her non-fiction espionage book titled Zero Fail.
Whereas most espionage books dealing with the real world tend to focus on single remarkable individuals, Carol Leonnig takes a broader approach, exploring and dissecting the American Secret Service and its work. While it does provide some cursory background knowledge about its origins and inception, the story really begins with its catastrophic failure of failing to thwart the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
From there on out, Leonnig takes the time to trace the various reforms the agency was forced to make, and how it managed to radically transform itself into a truly elite espionage unit whose fame around the world wasn’t undeserved. It managed to complete many sensitive operations, chief among them being the prevention of Ronald Reagan‘s assassination in 1981.
However, the author moves on further and further towards the modern age, and with it she traces an increasing number of mistakes and lapses in judgment which seemed to plague the agency more and more every year. She discusses the recent failures, including break-ins at the White House, and how the recent administrations have only exacerbated the situation for their own personal gains.
Naturally, Carol Leonnig doesn’t simply rely on her own knowledge and research to discuss such a complex topic information on which is limited. She has interviewed dozens of current and former agents, whistleblowers and officials who have all put their reputation on the line to speak their truth about an organization they are deeply convinced is handicapped and once again in need of serious reforms.
A History of Five Administrations in Zero Fail
To make this convoluted subject a little easier to explore, discuss and digest, Carol Leonnig has decided to structure her book by dividing it into five main parts, each one dealing with a specific presidential administration. First we’re treated to the years from Kennedy to Nixon, then from Ford to Clinton, and after that follow the Bush, Obama and Trump years.
As such, each segment is more or less treated like its own separate story, so-to-speak (just to reiterate, this book is one hundred percent non-fiction), and I thought it was a very neat way to organize the narrative, making it easy to follow, and most importantly, remember.
In each of those parts the author takes a close look at the various significant events and developments pertaining to the Secret Service, bringing to the fore a number of documented crises and incidents. She also takes the time to shed some light on various unreported incidents, while always maintaining a factual tone of neutrality, noting where concrete evidence is lacking and one is forced to draw his or her own conclusions.
Her accounts of events and operations which actually took place are riveting to read through and almost had me forgetting I wasn’t reading a novel at times. Though all the names might have been changed to protect the identities of real people, everything is adequately sourced and supported by the author’s research, and I never for a second doubted she was relaying the truth (at least to the very best of her extensive knowledge), no matter how surprising it seemed.
In regards to the earlier administrations, I found it particularly interesting to see where and how the Secret Service originated, what challenges they were facing as far as safeguarding Kennedy went, and how they managed to reshape themselves into a truly competent machine. Carol Leonnig gives praise where it is due in Zero Fail, but the second half of the book tends to focus much more on the latter part of the title.
A Tale of Deterioration
When the book reaches the years of the Bush administration, it starts to feel a little more like a report on the agency’s failures, the list of which becomes rather extensive by the end of the Trump era. Once again, without letting her own personal feelings or opinions shine through, Carol Leonnig lays out the facts as they are known and simply does her best to present the real picture with all the clarity it can be given.
While some of the major scandals and incidents she discusses are very well-known to the public and have made the news on more than one occasion, she also delves into many incidents whose low visibility has allowed them to be swept under the rug, at least partially. Even if you’re coming from an angle where you expect incompetence, the sheer amount of it is still astonishing to see, if not particularly troubling… and this without touching on the misuse of the organization by politicians.
Naturally, you’re going to be wondering as to how well-founded her portrayal of the Secret Service is, and I would argue it’s about as trustworthy as anything we’ve had so far. In addition to her two decades spent investigating American national security, Carol Leonnig has interviewed some one hundred and eighty people for this book, most of whom maintained their anonymity.
The information these people reveal, the depth of its details, highly suggest they do indeed know what they are talking about and have shared real insider knowledge with the author. I believe for this aspect alone the book is worth reading; even with all that is in the public domain, much of the work done by the Secret Service remains shrouded in a veil of mystery, and only those working from within can help to lift.
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While it might sound like it given the premise of Zero Fail, I never had the impression the author was slinging dirt for the sake of it, nor was she trying to advance some sort of personal agenda. More than anything, her work, in my opinion at least, seems to be driven by an earnest concern for the safety and future of her country, and is ultimately an essay which makes a strong case for the Secret Service being in dire need of major reforms. Though it might sound obvious, sometimes we need to be shown what is broken before we can think about fixing it.
The Final Verdict
Zero Fail by Carol Leonnig is an extremely revealing and necessary non-fiction espionage book giving us a wide window into the history and fate of the American Secret Service. Without ever feeling biased, delivered through a sharp and simple prose while hanging on decades of research and one hundred and eighty insider interviews, the book offers about as complete of an account on the subject as I’ve seen.
If you’re even remotely interested in the Secret Service, its history and its current state, then I believe you absolutely owe it to yourself to add this book to your library; it’s everything an espionage aficionado could ever dream of.
VIDEO: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service
Carol Duhurst Leonnig
Carol Duhurst Leonnig is an American investigative journalist and author who has been working as a staff writer at The Washington Post since 2000. She was part of a team which reported on national security, and in 2014 won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on the NSA’s extensive domestic spying program. Her works include A Very Stable Genius, Zero Fail and I Alone Can Fix It.