Secret Service Slip-Ups: How Safe Are Our Leaders?

If they can steal a phone, what's to stop them from placing a bomb, asks one former Secret Service agent?

The recent theft of first daughter Barbara Bush's cell phone and purse in Argentina may seem like fodder for the gossip columns, but it is a deadly serious matter to those whose job it is to provide security to the president and his family.

And it brings up some vital questions: What happens to her father's phone number? How many confidential numbers and e-mail addresses need to be changed? What's going on inside the Secret Service? And how could this have happened?

"It's a 24-hour, seven-day activity," says William B. Hackenson, a retired Secret Service agent currently working as an executive at Fortress Global Investigations Corp. "There's a very high risk of being kidnapped or something worse, especially since 9/11. So you always have to be on your guard."

One thing is for certain: It's not easy to be one of the agents guarding President Bush's twin daughters.

Barbara Bush's adventure in Argentina -- during which several agents guarding her at a Buenos Aires restaurant proved unable to stop a thief from stealing her purse and cell phone and another agent on advance detail was badly beaten in an altercation -- was just the most recent drama in the tangled relationship between the Secret Service and presidential progeny.

It may not seem as dangerous as riding in a motorcade with the president, but protecting the children of a president can be one of the most difficult assignments for Secret Service agents.

And the Bush daughters have proved to be possibly the most stubborn challenge. Since their father's inauguration in 2001, they've graduated from high school, attended college (along with the requisite frat parties) and dated a few different boyfriends -- all while trailed by a few grim-faced agents with earpieces.

Two years ago, agents protecting Jenna Bush had almost the same experience as those protecting her sister had in Argentina, although with better results. In June 2004, one of her agents tackled a thief who was trying to snatch her cell phone off a restaurant table, where Jenna and her four friends were eating, in the resort town of Tarifa in southern Spain.

At least the agents trailing the daughters sometimes got a feel for the glamorous life.

During an internship with an entertainment company, Jenna used to party with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Ashton Kutcher, who recalled the girls underage drinking at his house, while the Secret Service waited nearby.

When the twins wanted to meet Audioslave's Chris Cornell, they sent one of their agents over to set up an introduction to the rocker.

In May 2001, both Jenna and Barbara were cited by cops for underage drinking. It was unclear where their Secret Service detail was during both incidents, which led to some criticism of the agents. And Jenna was reportedly so upset that she broke into tears and complained to the police about how frustrating it was that she couldn't do what other 19-year-olds do.

Earlier that year, agents picked up a male friend of Jenna's from jail after he was charged with public intoxication and underage drinking.

Another time, Jenna was reportedly refused service at a bar when the bartender noticed her two Secret Service agents.

She fled the bar and ran into an alley where she taunted one of the agents: "You know, if anything happens to me, my dad would have your ass," according to U.S. News & World Report.

Often, agents end up acting as surrogate parents -- to the frustration of both sides.

"The biggest challenge with the children, with teenagers and young adults, is that they want their privacy and you can't really give it to them," said Hackenson, the retired agent. "It puts you in an awkward position."

Hackenson was part of the Secret Service detail guarding President Carter's daughter, Amy, during a difficult period when there was a threat from Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

"She was in middle school and she wanted to have her fun," he said. "She loved going to her favorite ice cream place in Northwest [a section of Washington] after school and we had to stop going so that it didn't become a routine that could put her in danger. She was upset."

Sometimes, the first kids learn how to ditch their security detail. On her way to a World Wrestling Federation match in New York City, Barbara Bush once sped away from her agents when they got stuck counting coins at a toll booth.

President Ford's daughter, Susan, once ran out of the White House and sped away in her Mustang before anyone had time to react or to chase her down. At least that adventure did not have an unhappy ending.

And Susan Ford ended up marrying one of her father's agents, Charles Vance, in 1979.