The public has all but forgotten the U.S. Secret Service's Colombian prostitute scandal, but the past 24 hours have probably dredged up bad memories for the agency's PR department. One Secret Service agent traveling with President Obama in Israel is in hot water for reportedly junking the president's heavily fortified limousine by filling it with diesel instead of gas ("This is why we bring multiple vehicles and a mechanic on all trips," says agency spokesman Brian Leary.) Hours later, The Atlantic published a short but eye-catching excerpt from Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, an upcoming book by The Week's Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady. The hook? "How the Secret Service almost shot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
The incident happened in September 2006, when the Iranian president was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. First, a quick reality check (or perhaps spoiler) from Reuters' Anthony De Rosa:
The Secret Service didn't almost shoot Ahmadinejad, but an agent accidentally discharged a shotgun in his proximity soup.ps/Xr0bkp
— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) March 21, 2013
That probably underplays the seriousness of the event, though. This incident showed up as a "particularly chilling item" in President George W. Bush's daily national security briefing the next day, "and it scared the hell out of the dozen or so White House officials cleared to read it," say Ambinder and Grady. The briefing reportedly said that the "apparent accident" happened outside the InterContintental Hotel, as Ahmadinejad was loading his motorcade.
At the time, the Bush administration was weighing how to deal with the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. And here a Secret Service agent had just given Iran a potentially devastating public-relations coup.... The agent was adjusting the side-mounted shotgun on one of the motorcade's armored follow-up Suburbans when it discharged. "Everyone just stopped. The Iranians looked at us and we looked at the Iranians...." [Deep State, via The Atlantic]
In other words, says Gawker's Taylor Berman, "this could have been bad." Yes. But it wasn't.
"...The agent began to apologize. Ahmadinejad just turned his head and got into his car." And that was it. The Iranians told no one. Their silence led several White House aides to begin to see Ahmadinejad in a new light. Here was evidence that maybe Iran was acting strategically, and therefore cautiously. [Deep State, via The Atlantic]
A lot of unanswered questions remain — "apparent accident"? — and frightening what-ifs in that anecdote, but as the sitcoms used to say, we all learned something from it. And while we still haven't figured out exactly how to deal with Iran's nukes, it's a lot easier to pursue a non-military strategy when you're not at war over a misfired shotgun blast.