WASHINGTON, DC—White House Secret Service Agent Anthony Panucci is being called a hero after intercepting what could have been a critically damaging question aimed directly at President Bush during a press conference in the Rose Garden Tuesday.
According to eyewitnesses, the press conference began with Bush fielding routine questions about March Madness and the dedication of a World War II memorial near his home in Crawford, TX. However, approximately seven minutes into the event, a lone reporter somehow managed to maneuver to the front of the press corps group and fire off a loaded, highly charged question concerning Bush's role in the controversial dismissal of eight federal attorneys last year.
"I just followed my training and did what I was supposed to do—put myself between the president and irreparable harm," said Panucci, who is credited with safely deflecting the attack away from Bush, as well as acting before the reporter had a chance to get off a follow-up question at close range. "And let's not forget my colleagues who rushed the president from the scene."
Although Panucci is not allowed to discuss the specifics of his White House anti-interrogative work, Secret Service director Mark Sullivan said Wednesday that in recent weeks agents had picked up "a lot of chatter" targeting Bush.
Sullivan also indicated that Tuesday's press conference is not likely to be an isolated incident.
"These potential character assassins are getting smarter, swifter, and bolder, and it's cause for alarm," Sullivan said. "So far, we've been able to prevent most of the blunt, obvious queries from getting anywhere near President Bush, but you never know when a seemingly harmless inquiry will contain hidden barbs or corrosive implications, or even poisonous little crystals of embedded truth."
While Sullivan downplayed the possibility of a conspiracy in the incident, he said that it was only "a matter of time" before someone from this highly motivated group of well-trained reporters attempts to hit the president again.
Agent Panucci, who suffered minor abrasions, is expected to recover fully, though he admits he has experienced some painful moments and sleepless nights.
"I'm just glad I was able to intercept the question, and that I had the training and presence of mind to handle it," Panucci said. "The last thing this country needs right now is to see Bush getting struck by something like that on national television."
Sullivan said officials at every level are now considered at risk for similar attacks. The Secret Service is working closely with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow to further safeguard everyone in the Cabinet from questions of the same caliber and impact as the one Tuesday.
The reporter who aimed the pointed question has been positively identified as Walter Pincus of The Washington Post. He was pronounced dead at the scene after being shot more than 140 times by Secret Service agents, FBI sharpshooters, and D.C. police.