Ronald Borek Kessler (born December 31, 1943) is an American journalist and author of 21 non-fiction books about the White House, U.S. Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Seven of his books have appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Kessler was born in New York City to Dr. Ernest Borek and Minuetta Shumiatcher Borek, and grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts. His father was born in Hungary and his mother was born in Russia. He attended Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts from 1962 to 1964 before embarking on a career in journalism. Kessler is married and has two children.
Kessler began his career in 1964 as a reporter with the Worcester Telegram, followed by three years as an investigative reporter and editorial writer with the Boston Herald. A series he wrote while there was instrumental in the installation of a better plaque commemorating the location of Boston's Pre-Revolutionary-War Liberty Tree. In 1968, he joined The Wall Street Journal as an investigative reporter in the New York bureau. During these years, his reporting won awards from the American Political Science Association (public affairs reporting award, 1965), United Press International (1967) and the Associated Press (Sevellon Brown Memorial award, 1967).
The Washington Post
From 1970 to 1985, Kessler was an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. In 1972, he won a George Polk Memorial award for Community Service because of two series of articles he wrote—one on conflicts of interest and mismanagement at Washington area non-profit hospitals, and a second series exposing kickbacks among lawyers, title insurance companies, realtors, and lenders in connection with real estate settlements, inflating the cost of buying homes. That Kessler series resulted in congressional passage in 1974 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), which outlaws kickbacks for referral of settlement services in connection with real estate closings. For the two series, Kessler was named a Washingtonian of the Year for 1972 by Washingtonian magazine. In 1979, Kessler won a second Polk Award, this one for National Reporting for a series of articles exposing corruption in the General Services Administration; he won even though his editor, Ben Bradlee, had not submitted his stories for consideration. Kessler's Washington Post stories reporting that Lena Ferguson had been denied membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) because she is black led to her acceptance by the DAR, appointment to head the DAR Scholarship Committee, and widespread changes in the organization's policies to increase membership by blacks.
Since leaving The Washington Post, Kessler has authored 21 nonfiction books on intelligence and current affairs. Seven of his books reached the hardcover nonfiction New York Times Best Seller list: The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents (2014),The Secrets of the FBI (2011), In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect (2009), described by USA Today as "the inside scoop on those stern-faced guys who protect the president," Laura Bush (2006), a biography of the first lady; A Matter of Character (2004), an admiring look at George W. Bush's presidency; The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America's Richest Society (1999), an investigative report on the lives of multi-billionaires in Palm Beach, Florida; and Inside the White House (1995), a behind-the-scenes expose of presidencies from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bill Clinton.."
Kessler's book, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, led to the dismissal by President Clinton of William S. Sessions as FBI director over his abuses. According to The Washington Post, "A Justice Department official ... noted that the original charges against Sessions came not from FBI agents but from a journalist, Ronald Kessler [who uncovered the abuses while writing a book about the FBI, leading to Sessions' dismissal by President Clinton] ..." The New York Times said Kessler's FBI book "did indeed trigger bureau and Justice Department investigations into alleged travel and expense abuses [by FBI Director William Sessions, leading to his departure] ...
In his book The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, Kessler presented the first credible evidence that Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's Watergate source dubbed Deep Throat was FBI official W. Mark Felt. The book said that Woodward paid a secret visit to Felt in California and had his limousine park ten blocks away from Felt's home and walked to it so as not to attract attention. The New York Times said the book offers an "understanding of the institution's history, as well as an account of what it is like to be on the inside ... Kessler investigates the relationship between FBI directors and sitting presidents and also includes exclusive interviews with Robert Mueller, who led the FBI in the period immediately after 9/11." Jon Stewart of The Daily Show said Kessler's The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack is a "very interesting look inside the FBI and CIA, which I think is unprecedented." The Washington Times said of the book, "Ronald Kessler is a veteran Washington-based investigative journalist on national security. His unparalleled access to top players in America's counterterrorism campaign allowed him a rare glimpse into their tradecraft, making The Terrorist Watch a riveting account."
Kessler's book, In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, was described by USA Today as a "fascinating exposé ... high-energy read ... amusing, saucy, often disturbing anecdotes about the VIPs the Secret Service has protected and still protects ... [accounts come] directly from current and retired agents (most identified by name, to Kessler's credit) ... Balancing the sordid tales are the kinder stories of presidential humanity ... [Kessler is a] respected journalist and former Washington Post reporter ... an insightful and entertaining story." Newsweek said of the book, "Kessler's such a skilled storyteller, you almost forget this is dead-serious nonfiction ... An afterword reveals new details about Kessler's discovery of a third uninvited intruder during last year's White House State Dinner ... The behind-the-scenes anecdotes are delightful, but Kessler has a bigger point to make, one concerning why the under-appreciated Secret Service deserves better leadership." FactCheck.org said, "His [Kessler's] book quotes both flattering and unflattering observations about presidents of both parties."
On April 14, 2012, Kessler broke the story that the Secret Service had removed and sent home agents assigned to protect President Obama during his trip to Cartagena, Colombia, because they had been involved in hiring prostitutes there.
Kessler's book The Secrets of the FBI presents revelations about the Russian spy swap, Marilyn Monroe's death, Vince Foster's suicide, the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, and J. Edgar Hoover's sexual orientation. For the first time, it tells how the FBI caught spy Robert Hanssen in its midst and how secret teams of FBI agents break into homes, offices, and embassies to plant bugging devices without getting caught and shot as burglars.
On November 9, 2012, Kessler broke the story that an FBI investigation led to the resignation of David H. Petraeus as CIA director. The concern was that Petraeus had put himself in a compromised position, opening himself to potential blackmail by foreign intelligence services. Kessler's subsequent story on Nov 11 said an FBI source had told him on Oct 10 that agents on the case were outraged because they were told by senior officials that the FBI was going to hold their findings in limbo until after the election, when Petraeus would be told to resign. The day after the election, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of National Intelligence, told the CIA director to resign.
Kessler's book The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents debuted at #4 on the hardcover nonfiction New York Times Best Seller list. In the book Kessler reports that Vice President Joe Biden enjoys skinny dipping, which offends female agents, and that being assigned to his detail is considered to be the second worst protective assignment in the Secret Service after Hillary Clinton's detail. The book also reveals that the Secret Service covered up the fact that President Ronald Reagan's White House staff overruled the Secret Service to let unscreened spectators get close to Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton, allowing John W. Hinckley, Jr. to shoot the president. The New York Post called the book "a compelling look at the intrepid personnel who shield America's presidents and their families—and those whom they guard. Kessler writes flatteringly and critically about people in both parties."
Kessler's latest book is The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game. The Washington Post's review, by Hugh Hewitt, called the book "trustworthy, and, in an unusual twist these days, it's favorable to the president. ... Kessler also got Trump to sit down for an interview on New Year's Eve at Mar-a-Lago, a conversation that shows the president confident and comfortable in his role. ... Kessler conveys Trump's world in coherent, readable fashion, and provides the players' assessments of one another.
Citing Kessler's two Secret Service books exposing the agency's laxness and corner cutting, SmartBlog on Leadership said, "One person [Ronald Kessler] was warning of the decline of the [Secret Service and its lapses and failures] well before the Salahis crashed a state dinner in 2009; well before the 2012 prostitute scandal in Colombia; before a knife-wielding man gained entrance to the White House last year; and before the recent episode in which drunk agents drove their car up to the White House and interrupted an active bomb investigation."
"Ron Kessler ... has enjoyed a reputation for solid reporting over the past four decades," Lloyd Grove wrote in his column in The Daily Beast. Franklin Pierce University awarded Kessler the Marlin Fitzwater Medallion for excellence as a prolific author, journalist, and communicator.
Kessler writes The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Washington Times, and Politico opinion pieces, including "Surveillance: An American Success Story" on Politico, "Reform the Secret Service" in The Washington Post, and "The Real Joe McCarthy," which attacked efforts by some conservative writers to vindicate the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, in The Wall Street Journal.
After National Public Radio (NPR) fired Juan Williams as a news analyst, Kessler wrote "The Juan Williams I Know". Based on his book The Secrets of the FBI, Kessler wrote "Russia Tried to Swap Spies Hanssen, Ames". In a Time magazine opinion piece, Kessler wrote "The Secret Service Thinks We Are Fools" after the White House intrusion based on his book The First Family Detail.
From 2006 to 2012, Kessler was chief Washington correspondent for Newsmax. He wrote the Washington Insider column, and his stories for Newsmax included interviews with President Bush, Donald Trump, Sam Donaldson, Andy Card, CIA Director Michael Hayden, Mitt Romney, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Vice President Dick Cheney, Jim Cramer, Deborah Norville, Dana Perino, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Brian Lamb, Juan Williams, Edwin Meese III, Condoleezza Rice, and Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. For his Newsmax columns, Kessler won the first Robert Novak Journalist of the Year Award.
On January 4, 2010, Kessler wrote a Newsmax article revealing that the Secret Service allowed a third uninvited guest to attend President Obama's state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh besides party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi on November 24, 2009. The Secret Service confirmed the third intrusion "following a report by Ronald Kessler, a journalist who writes for Newsmax.com", The Washington Post said. "Kessler reported that the agency discovered the third crasher after examining surveillance video of arriving guests and found one tuxedoed man who did not match any name on the guest list."
In an article for Newsmax, on March 16, 2008, Kessler incorrectly reported, based on a previous Newsmax story by a freelance writer, that Senator Barack Obama attended a service at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ on July 22, 2007, during which Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave a sermon that blamed world suffering on "white arrogance". The Obama campaign denied that Obama had attended the church on the day that sermon was delivered and other reporters discovered that Obama was in fact in transit to Miami, Florida on that day. Newsmax posted a clarification while standing by the story, suggesting that perhaps the sermon occurred on a different day in July. Shortly after the controversy broke, Kessler confirmed to Talking Points Memo that he attempted to remove information documenting it from his English Wikipedia biography.
In December 2008, Kessler wrote a column debunking claims that Obama was not born in the U.S. He also wrote an article reporting that intelligence officials are impressed by how Obama takes intelligence briefings.
In January 2011, Kessler wrote a column headlined "Don't Underestimate Donald Trump for President." In "A Roadmap to Trump's Washington," Kessler described the carrot-and-stick approach Trump used to get his Mar-a-Lago estate approved as a club by Palm Beach Town Council members and predicted he would operate in the same manner as president to win over support for his agenda. In "The Anatomy of a Trump Decision," Kessler depicted how Trump makes decisions by focusing on his decision to turn his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach into a private club.
Kessler's writings have been criticized in publications such as The Washington Post and The Week for overt partisanship and a lack of journalistic rigor.
Every book ever written has mistakes. But experts are supposed to get the main things right, and reporters generally follow through when someone tells them something. Too often, Kessler seems to have listened to his sources, written their words down, and then simply printed as fact their allegations or observations without checking on them.— Marc Ambinder, The Week, August 6, 2014
In a note to The Week, Kessler disputed charges of inaccuracy, including uncertainty over whether then-Vice President Joe Biden had spent a million dollars of taxpayer funds to take personal trips on Air Force Two back and forth between Washington and his home in Wilmington. The publication agreed to update Ambinder's article, saying that "... author Ronald Kessler provided The Week with documentation from the Air Force about Vice President Biden's travel" and linked to the Air Force's letter responding to Kessler's Freedom of Information Act request with the official record of Biden's flights back and forth between Washington and Wilmington with their cost as listed in Kessler's book The First Family Detail.
Noting Kessler's extraordinary access to the then Secret Service Director, Mark Sullivan, during the writing of In The President's Secret Service, James Bamford wrote in a review in The Washington Post that:
... in light of an odd decision by the current director, Mark Sullivan, the motto should be changed to "Have You Heard This One?" During the Bush administration, hoping for some good, ego-enhancing publicity, Sullivan broke with his agency's long-standing policy of absolute silence and allowed Ronald Kessler to get an earful. The chief Washington correspondent for Newsmax.com, which bills itself as "the #1 conservative news agency online," Kessler had written very positive books about CIA Director George Tenet, first lady Laura Bush and President George W. Bush, and Sullivan was probably hoping for the same treatment. Hearing that Sullivan had given Kessler his blessing, scores of current and former agents -- Kessler claims more than 100 -- agreed to talk to him. But rather than use that wealth of information to write a serious book examining the inner workings of the long-veiled agency or the new challenges of protecting the first black president, the author simply milked the agents for the juiciest gossip he could get and mixed it with a rambling list of their complaints.— James Bamford, The Washington Post, August 23, 2009
However, in reviewing Kessler's book In the President's Secret Service, FactCheck.org said, "His [Kessler's] book quotes both flattering and unflattering observations about presidents of both parties."
A September 30, 2014 Politico piece by Kessler on Secret Service blunders, including allowing a knife-wielding intruder to race into the White House and failing to detect gun shots at the White House until four days later, was criticized by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo for allegedly implying that because he had not taken steps to correct the problems within the agency by replacing the director, President Obama would be at fault if the Secret Service's security breakdowns led to his own assassination. A subsequent editor's note called that a misinterpretation. The reference in question said, "Agents tell me that it's a miracle an assassination has not already occurred. Sadly, given Obama's colossal lack of management judgment, that calamity may be the only catalyst that will reform the Secret Service."
According to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA torture and the report itself as reported in The New York Times, Kessler's book, The CIA at War, "included inaccurate claims about the effectiveness of CIA interrogations" provided by the CIA to Kessler and New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl, such as the claim that the arrests of terrorist suspects were based on information from interrogations of other terrorists under torture. The report said this rationale was used to justify the use of torture. In a comment to The New York Times, Kessler said he corroborated what he was told with the FBI, and he called the Senate report discredited because it was written only by Democratic lawmakers and did not include interviews with many of the main players. Subsequently, John Brennan, President Obama's appointee as CIA director, said that while no one knows whether the information could have been obtained otherwise, "[o]ur review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives."
- The Life Insurance Game. Henry Holt & Co. 1985. ISBN 978-0-03-070507-6.
- The Richest Man in the World: The Story of Adnan Khashoggi. Warner Books. 1986. ISBN 978-0446513395.
- Spy vs. Spy: Stalking Soviet Spies in America. Scribner. 1988. ISBN 978-0684189451.
- Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy. Scribner. 1989. ISBN 978-0684189819.
- The Spy in the Russian Club: How Glenn Souther Stole America's Nuclear War Plans and Escaped to Moscow. Scribner. 1990. ISBN 978-0684191164.
- Escape from the CIA: How the CIA Won and Lost the Most Important Spy Ever to Defect to the U.S. Pocket Books. 1991. ISBN 978-0671726645.
- Inside the CIA: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Most Powerful Spy Agency. Pocket Books. 1992. ISBN 978-0671734572.
- The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency. Pocket Books. 1993. ISBN 978-0671786571.
- Inside the White House: The Hidden Lives of the Modern Presidents and the Secrets of the World's Most Powerful Institution. Pocket Books. 1995. ISBN 978-0671879204.
- The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded. Warner Books. 1996. ISBN 978-0446518840.
- Inside Congress: The Shocking Scandals, Corruption, and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill. Pocket Books. 1997. ISBN 978-0671003852.
- The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America's Richest Society. HarperCollins. 1999. ISBN 978-0060193911.
- The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. St. Martin's Press. 2002. ISBN 978-0312304027.
- The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror. St. Martin's Press. 2003. ISBN 978-0312319328.
- A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush. Sentinel. 2004. ISBN 1-59523-000-9.
- Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady. Doubleday. 2006. ISBN 0-385-51621-5.
- The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack. Crown. 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-38213-9.
- In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. Crown. 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-46135-3.
- The Secrets of the FBI. Crown. 2011. ISBN 978-0804139212.
- The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents. Crown Forum. 2014. ISBN 978-0-8041-3921-2.
- The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game. Crown Forum. 2018. ISBN 978-0525575719.