Former U.S. Secret Service agent Dan Bongino talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about why he’s running for Congress, what he believes voters should look for in a candidate for public office and his best-selling book.
Dan Bongino worked for the New York Police Department for four years before joining the U.S. Secret Service in 1999, where he eventually became a member of the elite Presidential Protective Division and served the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. One of the earliest tenured agents to be given responsibility for an operational section of the protective detail, he was awarded a series of commendations. In 2010, after serving the maximum allowed time on protective detail, he left as one of their most distinguished agents. Next, he was assigned to Baltimore, where he broke up one of the largest fraud rings in Maryland’s history.
Bongino resigned from the Secret Service in 2011, and in late-2013, his book, Life Inside the Bubble: Why a Top-Ranked Secret Service Agent Walked Away from it All, was published and quickly made the New York Times and Amazon best-sellers lists. The book tells the story of his life, his experiences protecting the president and his investigative work.
As the Republican nominee for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, on Nov. 4 Bongino will face incumbent John Delaney, who has held the office since 2013. “I always wanted to kind of take on the system and speak out and make a difference,” says Bongino. “My wife and I talked about ways to change our tomorrow and we decided to get off the couch and do it instead of just talking about it. I was a boxer and an MMA [mixed martial arts] fighter, but I never thought it would be my name on the [campaign] sign.”
Opportunist: Can you tell us about your path to the Secret Service?
Dan Bongino: I grew up in kind of a dream life in a white picket fence atmosphere in what you’d call American suburbia. When my parents got divorced it was a rude awakening to say the least—more like a punch in the stomach. Life changed overnight because my mother and I went from middle class to the lower-income category. We moved from a spacious home to an apartment in New York City, and we struggled sometimes. Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor but then we had an incident, which I describe in detail in my book, where my mom’s future husband was not the nicest guy. He had bouts of anger and violence and almost tried to break into our house and the police showed up. It was the only thing that ever calmed him down. That diverted me at least temporarily into thinking about a career in law enforcement and I joined the New York Police Department and spent a couple of years as a cadet.
When I joined the Secret Service it was pretty overwhelming at first. I started in the New York field office and then went out to Long Island and was ultimately involved with the Clintons and Rudy Giuliani. I traveled the world, to places like Russia and Japan, which was a pretty big deal for a guy who had traveled out of New York only twice: to Vermont with my father and with my mother to New Jersey. I was running around with Mrs. Clinton while she was running for the Senate. She was First Lady at the time.
After you kind of acclimate to the stresses of the job and get to sit down and think, little things start to burrow under your skin. You almost don’t see the forest for the trees because so much is coming at you. We used to joke that it was like drinking from a fire hose. Try it sometime. It doesn’t work.
Opportunist: Why did you leave the Secret Service?
Dan Bongino:It wasn’t an easy decision. There was no road to Damascus moment. As a follower of the Austrian school of economics and Libertarian ideology and principles, when I saw what’s going on in D.C. it was just tough to accept it as normal. It became almost an obsession of mine.
Opportunist: What did you learn about the political process during your time inside the ‘DC Bubble,’ as you call it?
Dan Bongino: There are lots of really smart people in D.C. It’s not as if they don’t know what they’re doing is not going to work. I think that’s my emotional involvement in this. The irony is I really hate politics. Politics is not a dirty business; it’s filled with dirty people. We have to change things. I don’t want to include everyone but it’s the people with the loudest mouths and the most malicious intentions who do the most damage and obtain the most power. They want to retain power, and it’s not about you.
As human beings we are sympathetic creatures who want to believe people have good intentions. I am not impugning all of them. Joe Lieberman is a man of high character. If you ask people what they think of him they will say he was a dignified, classy human being. Unfortunately, he’s the exception and not the rule. The Democratic Party tried to run him out of town. People want to believe, they honestly do. I want Americans to get past asking who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and instead ask: ‘Who are the people getting the results?’ Start asking for results and then you’ll see something different. I think I’m a good guy too, but I’m not good enough to be the shortstop. It’s a meritocracy where you have to judge everyone on their goods.
Obama is a nice guy too, but his policies are causing an apocalypse. People are almost what I call dangerously loyal. There are obvious things going on right now where people of sound mind are just accepting this and believe the President’s motives are good. One example is the IRS scandal. People call me all the time and ask if that was all a mistake despite mounds of evidence. Displaced loyalty to a brand rather than to liberty based principles is not good.
Opportunist: As you campaign around your district, what are you finding to be the key issues facing Maryland—and even the nation?
Dan Bongino: It’s not just one thing. We’ve been knocking on doors a long time. Candidates love to say that because it sounds good, but we have knocked on doors so long we’ve actually knocked on some media doors. ‘What are you doing at my door?’ they will ask. And our response is ‘You were on our walk list.’ The media and the Democrats are really underselling to the American public the catastrophic position the country is in. There is more than a general feeling the country is on the wrong track. Based on what we hear the most, in Maryland it’s definitely taxes. The tax environment here is just dreadful—it’s not even that it’s bad; it’s cataclysmic. In a place like New York they may be able to sneak high taxes on people because New Jersey taxes are high too, but you can’t do that here. We are surrounded by Delaware and Virginia and West Virginia. That’s why people cannot evacuate Maryland soon enough. It always gets me choked up because I moved here because I wanted to not because I had to. It’s a majestic state with four beautiful seasons and yet the common theme is ‘leaving Maryland.’
Opportunist: If elected, what do you expect will be your first order of business?
Dan Bongino:Taxes. We have got to cut the tax rate. People can’t feed their kids anymore. Nothing else should be a higher priority than to get more money back into the people’s wallets. Give yourself a raise: vote Republican. What you hear from the Democrats is that tax cuts will cost the government money but that is factually incorrect. And, by the way, this is not proprietary information. When you put money back in people’s wallets they go out and invest in businesses which grow and they buy things and pay sales taxes. We need to let people spend their own money. Tax revenue usually doesn’t suffer as a result.
Opportunist: From the perspective of a former Secret Service agent, what do you see as the biggest threat to national security?
Dan Bongino: Al Qaeda. No question. Because the terrorist model keeps changing. The model has now become what I call a sole proprietorship terrorist. You don’t need to be a franchisee of Al Qaeda with a cell. All you need to do is put out a couple of recruiting YouTube videos, find some people to get involved and all of a sudden you’ve got an army out there. What makes it an even worse threat is people in the government. I heard this term the other day and it’s a great line: ‘compound ignorance,’ meaning you don’t know what you don’t know. This is perfectly applicable to Al Qaeda. It’s treated like a criminal problem but the truth is that’s not the case. We know the problem. The problem is not all Muslims—that’s just silly—but are we not going to ask ourselves how people who are looking for a cause keep finding this particular cause? We’ve seen incidents of people involved in all kinds of acts but why does this cause keep showing up? Don’t we have a duty or obligation to call out danger? If we don’t know our enemy we don’t know how to defeat it.
I’m largely Republican with a heavy Libertarian leaning. I’m not calling for a police state. That’s not what I’m saying, but we have to be sensible here. When people claim allegiance to some kind of ideology and they behead someone and tell you their motives are Al Qaeda or ISIS but the media says it’s not, how ridiculous is that?
Opportunist: You have been outspoken about your views on gun control. What did you mean when you said ‘there is no such thing as gun control … only people control?’
Dan Bongino:The Dept. of Justice’s own research after the ban on assault weapons basically lays it out. I always tell people to look this up for themselves. Google is the ultimate polygraph test. The Dept. of Justice’s own data clearly stated that it did nothing to reduce crimes committed with a firearm. That leads to the pretty obvious and logical conclusion that bans do nothing to stop crimes. The argument tends to take on an emotional edge, and I get that. I have two daughters, so I understand parents who see school shootings and gun crime and want a solution. But criminals don’t care about gun control laws. I spent 17 years in law enforcement, and I cannot say that enough. Mandatory prison terms. Harsh prison terms. These are proven measures, but politicians are not interested in results; they are interested in reelections.
Dan Bongino:One thing I have made clear about my book is it’s not a tell-all book. I would never do that. There’s an omerta in the Secret Service and nothing I witnessed was outright criminal fair game. There are no security secrets. It became a bestseller because people wanted to hear my motivation for leaving the Secret Service. It’s my tale with interesting stories of dangerous places I found myself in and how we wiggled our way out of trouble. I also talk a little about what I think about Benghazi. I wasn’t in the White House then, but I know through experience how it works. I also have [an Operation] Fast and Furious chapter. When I wrote the book a year and a half ago I felt it was only a matter of time before these guns appeared on U.S. soil and we just found out a few weeks ago they are appearing on U.S. soil. I also wrote about scandals in the government and the genesis of those. The book received four-star reviews and sold close to 100,000 copies. The reviews are all good but they’re all over the place. Some people loved the hurrah stories and others thought it was a spy story. It did well and it was surprising. I didn’t even take an advance. I wrote it because I thought the story was interesting.
Opportunist: Do you have any other books in the works?
Dan Bongino:I am putting an idea together, with an outline. The title is not written yet but the gist of the book is ‘Why politics stinks and what you can do to change it … here’s your how-to guide.’ As a candidate and someone formerly on the inside of the bubble, I know what gets under their skin in Washington. You want to be that person who makes their staff think, Oh no, it’s that guy or it’s that woman whenever you call their office.
Opportunist: If you win a Congressional seat, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Dan Bongino: I hope that when I leave Congress the office is a lot less powerful than when I got there. I want to go there to defang that place. I am not interested in power lunches or Lincoln Town Car rides. I love Lincolns, don’t get me wrong, but Congress is too powerful and government has inserted itself into every single aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our health care to our religion. I’m surprised your Congressman is not sleeping with you and your spouse at night because they are embedded in every other aspect of your life.
I spent 12 years bouncing around in Air Force One. It’s just a big fat plane. The White House is great. It looks likes the ‘West Wing’ on TV, but after two days it’s a place you go to work. All the accoutrements that go with it I’m not interested in. I want the office to be disempowered and for the people to feel I really did something for them and not for me. That’s why I put out a contract with the citizens. You can look it up online. I put it out publicly. One of the tenets was donating half my salary to charity—not because I’m solving the national debt but because leadership matters. These guys get too much money, and it becomes a career. I drew up this contract not because I had to but because I wanted to put a perimeter around my own behavior, saying ‘I won’t be one of these guys’ and I’m willing to put a contract out there as a ‘here’s the proof.’
Opportunist: Could you see yourself making a bid for the White House someday?
Dan Bongino:I’m honored you would even entertain that question. I don’t even know how to respond. Sometimes people write that on my Facebook wall, but I feel it’s disingenuous or even totally irresponsible to talk about. Everyone would love to be the governor or a senator, but my responsibility right now is the residents of Maryland District 6.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.[Editor’s note: The views expressed in this interview are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily represent those of Opportunist magazine.]
Dan Bongino for Congress - http://www.bongino.com/
Dan Bongino’s Blog - http://blog.bongino.com/
Life Inside the Bubble - http://www.amazon.com/Life-Inside-Bubble-Top-Ranked-Service/dp/1938067363