Under the Radar

'White House Down' & the Secret Service



White House Down opens this weekend and tells the story of an aspiring Secret Service agent (Channing Tatum) who takes his daughter on a tour, gets caught up in a terrorist takeover of the White House and eventually teams up with the President (Jamie Foxx) to take out the bad guys.

If that sounds a lot like Olympus Has Fallen, a movie from a few months back that featured Gerard Butler as the agent and Aaron Eckhart as the Commander-in-Chief, well, yeah. Except White House Down looks to be more in the vein of the old Die Hard movies, with the no-longer-surprisingly-funny Tatum delivering the knowing Bruce Willis winks to the camera.

As part of our mission to sort out what's real and what's just moviemaking in Hollywood pictures, we talked to Mickey Nelson, former Assistant Director of The United States Secret Service. A 28-year veteran of the service, he oversaw all protective operations before he retired and took a post with Alpha Omega Global.


So Mickey actually know how all this stuff works and offers a lot of insight that you can use to blow everyone's mind during your post-theater  drinking and dining experience. Like anyone who's served long and well, he doesn't always talk about his Secret Service career in the past tense. We're cool with that and you should be, too.


A couple of things to know about the movie: Channing Tatum is not an actual Secret Service agent. He serves on the Capitol Police and gets rejected by the Service. It doesn't help that the supervisor who interviews him is also a woman he dated back in school. Ideally, his character both saves the President and gets rewarded with a sweet Secret Service gig at the end, but no one's giving away any major plot points here.


Thanks for talking with us. Tell our readers about how the real-life Capitol Police (the agency that protects the United States Congress) interacts with Secret Service and describe their relationship.

The Secret Service has a phenomenal relationship with the Capitol Police. When the Secret Service takes the President, the Vice President or any other of its protectees to Capitol Hill or when they're bringing someone like the Speaker of the House down to the White House or when we're doing any type of our joint ventures, the Secret Service works with the Capitol Police on a day-to-day basis.

Are there former Capitol Police officers serving in the Secret Service?

There are quite a few prior U.S. Capitol Police officers that are now Secret Service agents. They come to us with a good bit of training and knowledge of the workings of both the Hill and the White House so they make great agents or uniform division officers.

Where else do Secret Service agents come from?

 We've got a good cross-section of people coming from different parts of the country and different backgrounds. That's what makes the Service so unique. We've always had a huge number of agents who served in all branches of the military. In the last agent and uniform division classes, probably 75% of the recruits have been prior military. If you think about it, they come to us with the training, the discipline, the dedication already, so they make for quite the employee.

I know we're talking largely about the Special Agent ranks but also the uniform division and our administrative, professional and technical workforce also include a lot of folks with a military background.


Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a high-level Secret Service agent in the movie. Are there are a lot of women in the Service now?

We've always had women in the Secret Service and we've got quite a few now.  Julia Pearson, who was sworn in about two months ago, is the first female director of the Secret Service. She's a dedicated, hardworking individual who's been with the Service over 30 years now. She was a police officer prior to that.


What are the challenges for maintaining security in the White House building?

It is a unique set of circumstances when you've got a place like the White House in the middle of a city. There are a lot of challenges there, which is why we deploy so many assets in and around the White House. Some are very visible: the uniform division officers, the patrols that you see and most are not visible: the technology, the tactical assets that most people will never see.

That's what allows us to have 150,000 visitors come through there a year. It's a place that the President not only calls home, but actually lives in that home. It is quite unique in that respect and it's obviously a little different than taking the President out of the White House to a different location.

I only recently retired after 28 years and 8 months with the Secret Service, so I guess I've still to a lot of answers to the test, as some people say.


The filmmakers had to create their own version of the Presidential limo because the capabilities of the real one are so highly classified. What can you tell us about the actual car?

 I call that vehicle the parade limousine. It's affectionately known as "The Beast" all over the world. It's not so much a car as a tank with wheels and windows. It's the most sophisticated vehicle of its kind from both the tactical point of view and the armoring technology. It's the product of many years of hard work and dedication by a lot of smart Secret Service employees along with a lot of our partners from the military and private industry.  You won't see any other vehicles like it anywhere in the world.


Going back a number of years, the Secret Service has built their own or had their own vehicles built for their own specifications, probably for over 20 years, as opposed to going out and taking an off-the-shelf vehicle. Now what we're referring to as The Beast came in around 2001.

Quite frankly, technology allowed us to get it to that point.


We tried to Mr. Nelson to dish on which Secret Service movies have their fans in the Service and which ones they make fun of, but he used his best diplomatic skills and gave us nothing besides the fact that Clint Eastwood is awesome in In the Line of Fire.

White House Down was directed by Roland Emmerich, the guy who brought us Independence Day. It opens this weekend and should be the big movie on the upcoming July 4th holiday.

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