What it's like to be grilled by the Secret Service

Those who know me are well aware that I'm a history buff, especially when it comes to White House and presidential history. I've even gotten the private tour of the West Wing, seeing the Oval Office and Rose Garden, among other things.

I never expected that passion to get me in trouble. Until today.

I'm in the nation's capital this week to attend the Metricon 5 conference and USENIX Security Symposium, and to meet with various people from the information security industry in between.

Also see Obama inauguration puts spotlight on executive protection

This morning I had about three hours of free time. Having spent 14 hours driving here the day before, I decided a break was in order. So I did what I always do: I went to the White House. Usually I take a lot of pictures of the building, though this time I didn't have my camera. Just the not-so-good camera in my BlackBerry.

I like to walk around in front of the north and south sides of the White House, just staring and thinking about all the people who served here and the history that unfolded within those walls. Sometimes I linger for awhile. Anyone with a passion for history will understand this.

I went to the White House Visitor's Center and bought a couple books and did the same at the White House Historical Association and Decatur House, the latter two being next door to each other off of Lafayette Park across from the White House. In between, I hung out on the south side of the White House because Marine One was landing and taking off and, well, that's something you don't get to see every day. I took a couple pictures on my crappy BlackBerry phone and sent them to my Facebook page.

When I was done, I headed to the Metro stop at Farragut North to catch the train back to the hotel, stopping in Starbucks first.

At the bottom of the escalator a uniformed Secret Service officer from the bicycle patrol unit grabbed me by the arm (or tapped me -- I can't remember which). He asked me to come with him back up the escalator. When we got to the top and walked several feet from the metro stop, he began asking me some pointed questions.

"Where have you been today?" he asked with a scowl. I told him where I'd been.

"Where are you from?" he continued. Massachusetts, I told him.

"Why did you go into the Starbucks?" he asked. "Because I like coffee," I responded.

Then, he cut to the point. He said he had been observing me for two-and-a-half hours and wanted to know why I spent so much time around the White House. He was pretty sure I was taking surveillance photos of the White House.

"Because I'm a White House history buff and I'm fascinated with the place," I told him. I explained the history buff's need to stare and soak in historical sites. He asked me what I majored in during college. English and communications, I told him. "But you said you were a history buff," he said, as if you can't be an English major and have a passion for history at the same time.

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.

A fellow Secret Service officer soon joined him. This guy was calmer, not so accusatory. He asked me what I do for work and I told him. He snapped a photo of me for their files. I realized later the two were taking the good-cop-bad-cop approach to me.

Somewhere in the conversation, I mentioned that I know Howard Schmidt, President Obama's cybersecurity coordinator. The officers wanted to know who I had been talking to or texting on my BlackBerry that morning, and Schmidt was one of them. Hopefully, this doesn't get him in trouble with the Secret Service.

After running my ID and Social Security number through their system (I assume that's what they did with the information) they let me go.

Three hours later as I write this, my hands still shake. It was a very creepy experience.

I was livid at first, because I'm a patriotic American who has never been in a jail cell or interrogated by police, not even for the drunken escapades teenagers often enjoy on summer nights.

In hindsight, though, I know they were just doing their jobs, which is to protect the president and the White House. In the post 9-11 world, they can't be too careful, even if it means inconveniencing someone like me.

Also see "The 6 things you need to know about executive protection"Still, the whole thing brings up disturbing questions about privacy. Sometimes it seems we have less privacy and freedom because of society's fear of terrorists. Let's face it: 9-11 opened us up to a frightening world that exposed us to just how vulnerable we are.

I understand that. But I also can't help remember FDR's declaration that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

If that fear means a law-abiding citizen like me is going to be put through the wringer like a common criminal for walking around a city he loves, well, I'm not sure if that'll make us more secure in the end.

Or, for that matter, if it's worth that security.

All I can tell you is this: Do not spend too much time in front of buildings in Washington, D.C. Especially if you like to take pictures.

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.

This story, "What it's like to be grilled by the Secret Service" was originally published by CSO.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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