Lewis Merletti: All US agents are willing to take a bullet for a president

The former Secret Service head, who put his life on the line for three US presidents, is at the Global Intelligence Forum in Ireland this weekend. He says intelligence must move beyond the CIA and the FBI if ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks are to be stopped

On duty: Lewis Merletti, between Hillary and Bill Clinton, during a ceremony to make the US president an honorary freeman of Dublin in 1995

On duty: Lewis Merletti, between Hillary and Bill Clinton, during a ceremony to make the US president an honorary freeman of Dublin in 1995


Sleepy Dungarvan, on the Waterford coast, might seem an unusual location for a gathering of spooks and cops, but every two years it hosts a conference that has attracted such luminaries from the world of intelligence as former directors of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

This weekend about 200 people from Europe, North America and the Middle East will show up in the town for the fourth Global Intelligence Forum. The conference is a three-day affair hosted by the Tom Ridge school of intelligence studies and information science at Mercyhurst University, in Pennsylvania.

The university’s connections with the Waterford area date back to the 1980s. It has established Mercyhurst College Ireland in Dungarvan with plans to build a multimillion-euro college in the town for US students studying abroad for a semester.

The conference is not (just) about spies swapping tips on eavesdropping and the like. It’s about giving intelligence operators an opportunity to engage with experts from other fields, from medicine to business, to understand the diagnostic process of solving one problem and to try to look around corners to avoid others.

“We try to disabuse people of the notion that this is an espionage conference,” says its founder James Breckenridge, dean of Mercyhurt’s intelligence school. “We founded it so that people who practice intelligence can also teach it and that we can bring interesting and very diverse communities together.”

Breckinridge says that over the past 20 years Mercyhurst’s intelligence school has produced graduates who have gone on to work for large banks investigating fraud, for nonprofit groups working on human trafficking, for the film industry fighting piracy, and for retailers investigating supply-chain problems, among other areas. “It’s not about espionage; it’s about analysis.”

About 40 per cent of graduates left to work for US government intelligence agencies or private contractors hired by them.

Kevin Giblin, executive manager of Mercyhurst College Ireland and a 30-year veteran agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, says the conference is an opportunity “to gather to discuss issues that are not going away”. A former member of the Garda inspectorate, Giblin points to one of the most pressing topics for the intelligence community: the sophisticated use of social media by Islamic State militants and the slowness of the international community in countering their message.

“There is a lot of information out there, but there is not enough knowledge,” he says. “When we started with the 9/11 period we realised we needed context, to connect the dots, to do a better job with the information out there and make sure it is woven together properly.”

President Barack Obama has identified cyberattacks as one of the most serious economic and national-security challenges. The hacking of Sony Pictures servers and the recent cybertheft at the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that holds personal security-clearance information on more than 21 million US government workers, illustrated how severe a threat those attacks are.

‘Significant breach’

Changes to NSA data collection as a result of the Edward Snowden leaks have to some degree weakened US security, he says. “It is not the first time we have debated privacy versus security. Every time the pendulum swings one way or the other, someone is hurt, either the intelligence mechanism or privacy and civil liberties.”

Lewis Merletti, a former director of the US Secret Service who protected three presidents – Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton – believes intelligence must move beyond the CIA and the FBI to local law enforcement if “lone wolf” terrorist attacks are to be stopped. “It comes down to saying, ‘If you see something, say something,’ ” says Merletti, another keynote speaker at the conference, along with Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.

“If you go back pre-9/11 the FBI and the CIA and the Secret Service and the NSA all operated within their own little sphere. Now things have changed. The cultural attitude has changed. There is great sharing between federal, local and states agencies.”

Merletti was shocked that an Iraq War veteran, Omar Gonzalez, was able to jump a fence at the White House in September 2014 and enter the president’s residence. “It was a failure of discipline, a failure of training. It was a failure on every level. I find it very troubling,” he says.

“If someone has come over the fence they have already broken the law, and whatever intent they had is not something you have time to negotiate with. I believe the guy should have been shot.”

Merletti says that all agents are willing to take a bullet for a president. He points to Tim McCarthy, a colleague who spread himself out in front of Reagan to protect him, and was shot in the stomach, during an assassination attempt by John Hinckley jnr at the Washington Hilton in 1981. “He did the right thing,” Merletti says. “Not to be corny in any way, we really had a saying amongst us, ‘I would truly rather die than fail.’ ”

Merletti speaks highly of the presidents he served.

Reagan was “like a grandfather figure”, with a great sense of humour. “Very often, like at the end of the day, he would have a little joke for the agents. He would say, ‘Gather around, boys, I want to tell you a little a story,’ ” the Vietnam veteran says.

Bush was “more like a father figure”. Clinton, closer in age, was “like a colleague”.

Clinton gave Merletti a signed photograph of the poker-faced agent on duty during the presidential visit to Dublin in 1995, sitting between Bill and Hillary, whose faces are lit up by a joke. “To Lew, he can’t even hear a joke,” Clinton wrote.

Merletti says his admiration for the “three caring men” he served went beyond a job. “To me it was not only my mission, but you cared enough personally that you were just going to drive yourself to make sure that they were safe and the first family was safe.”