October 18, 2021

Make Clury

Petss Got It All

No Plan for Protecting Biden’s White House Pets

A handler walks Major, one of President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden's dogs, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

A handler walks Major, one of President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden’s dogs, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 31, 2021.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool (AP)

During a nuclear apocalypse, it’s every White House dog (or cat) for themselves.

That’s the implication from the United States Secret Service, whose officers famously staff the presidential security detail. The agency said in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, filed by Gizmodo in an attempt to expand the world’s questionably useful knowledge, that it has no plans on record for protecting presidential pets, like President Joe Biden’s dog, Major, in the event of a significant threat or another emergency.

A FOIA officer with the Office of Intergovernmental and Legislative Affairs wrote in the letter to Gizmodo that the Secret Service had conducted a “reasonable search for all potentially responsive documents” for any “policies and procedures related to securing presidential pets along with the president and the president’s family in the event of an attack or other emergency that necessitates the president and the president’s family being moved to a bunker or remaining in flight on Air Force One.” Ultimately, however, “no records were located”:

This is the final response to your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, originally received by the United States Secret Service (Secret Service) on May 11, 2021, for information pertaining to records sufficient to show the policies and procedures related to securing presidential pets along with the president and the president’s family in the event of an attack or other emergency that necessitates the president and the president’s family being moved to a bunker or remaining in flight on Air Force One.

In response to your FOIA request, the Secret Service FOIA Office has conducted a reasonable search for all potentially responsive documents. The Secret Service FOIA Office searched all Program Offices that were likely to contain potentially responsive records, and no records were located.

The Secret Service protects a number of individuals other than the president and vice president, such as certain Cabinet officials (like the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security), VIP foreign dignitaries, and certain diplomats abroad. But when it comes to the president and vice president themselves, the Secret Service is only assigned to protect them and their “immediate families.” Presidential pets obviously do not qualify.

In legal terms, First Pets are the president’s personal property with no official status whatsoever. So that means if some foreign adversary launches nukes toward the United States, a violent mob surrounds the White House, or someone starts taking potshots at the Oval Office’s windows, the Secret Service apparently has no written plan to secure Major Biden alongside President Joe Biden in the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). While most details of the PEOC are kept secret, it is known to have been specifically designed as the only place on the White House grounds likely to survive a nuclear attack.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment, including on whether the PEOC or Air Force One has pet food or supplies stocked in preparation such an emergency situation.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Secret Service is completely uninvolved in everything to do with presidential pets on a more ad hoc basis. As the agency principally responsible for the security of the White House, Secret Service officers are implicitly responsible for the security of the grounds and all personnel and property on-site, including everyone and everything from administration staffers and White House housekeepers to the Resolute Desk and any First Pets present.

The Secret Service may not have had to worry about pets under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who apparently either despises dogs or just thinks they’re not worth his time, and abandoned the tradition of welcoming a pet to the executive mansion. But it has foiled at least one alleged plot against a president’s pets before: In 2016, agents acting on a tip from the Secret Service’s Minnesota field office arrested a man named Scott Stockert at a Washington, DC, motel over a plot to kidnap at least one of Barack Obama’s two Portuguese water hounds, Bo and Sunny. At the time of the arrest, authorities said, Stockert’s vehicle was stocked with a shotgun, a bolt-action rifle, a machete, a bully club, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

While the residential staff handles most of the pet-related duties not actually carried out by the First Family—particularly legendary groundskeeper Dale Haney—Slate reported in 2013 that photographers sometimes snapped shots of Secret Service agents walking Bo and Sunny, creating a popular impression that was part of their job. (Slate noted agents have also been known to strike up casual friendships with presidential canines, as they did with Ronald Reagan’s dog, and in one case they informally adopted a stray until Jimmy Carter purportedly tried and failed to murder it with a saw for stealing food out of his cat’s bowl.) Presumably, any agent that picks up the executive leash would be responsible for its wellbeing for the duration of their jaunt across the lawn.

Whether agents do it as a favor to the president, they don’t mind bringing a furry friend with them on their normal rounds, or just because they really like dogs, the agency appears to be irritated by the implication they’re obligated to serve as dog walkers. In his autobiography, former Secret Service Dan Emmett wrote “walking the dog or cat is not and will never be a part of an agent’s job description.”

View the full response to Gizmodo’s FOIA request below:

H/T to Florida public defender and FOIA attorney Beth Bourdon, who assisted Gizmodo in filing this request.