Marc Ambinder, a former White House correspondent for National Journal, is a co-author of “The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army.
During the past five years, the U.S. Secret Service inadvertently let uninvited guests crash a state dinner, fired 10 agents for allegedly hiring prostitutes, pulled members of an elite counterassault team back from overseas duty for drinking, learned from housekeepers that bullets had hit the White House, failed to capture a fence-jumper before he ran through the executive mansion, and allowed an armed contractor with a criminal record to escort President Obama in an elevator. The agency also foiled assassination plots, secured thousands of events, and protected world leaders and presidential candidates. Let’s separate fact from fiction about the security agency.
1. The Secret Service’s hiring and training standards aren’t rigorous enough.
Rich Staropoli, a former member of President George W. Bush’s presidential detail and a former assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s New York field office, attributed the recent security lapses to years of practices under which the agency has hired “nice people. . . . We’ve hired people that are afraid to put hands on people, that are greatly constrained by senior management, that have become more concerned about operating within the bureaucracy.”
To some veteran agents like Staropoli, this sort of mind-set within the ranks of the Secret Service compromises the core mission of protecting the president, his family, candidates and other dignitaries, and combating counterfeiting and online fraud.
Until fairly recently, Secret Service recruiters did not look for candidates beyond the ranks of police departments and the military. During the tenure of two recent directors — W. Ralph Basham (2003 to 2006) and Mark J. Sullivan (2006 to 2013) — the Secret Service began to welcome not only recruits who could handle the physical demands of the job, but those who could also figure out how, say, to protect the elevators, controlled and operated remotely, the president might rely on during a foreign visit. Basham and Sullivan brought in people with backgrounds in the arts, philosophy or computer programming. But the Secret Service’s agent training program, which is similar to basic training for the Marines, is as rigorous as it ever has been.
2. When it comes to security decisions, the Secret Service rules the White House.
De jure: yes. De facto: not so much.
The Secret Service is chartered with protecting the 18 acres that make up the White House grounds. It shares the property with several entities, including the Executive Office of the President, the White House Military Office, the permanent housekeeping staff and credentialed members of the news media. It has the legal authority to make hard and fast decisions without consultation. But it must play well with others, giving up some of what it wants to get more of what it really wants. Security requirements are prioritized.
Let’s take the “crash boxes” at the White House complex. The alarm on at least one of them was turned down too low on the night of Sept. 19, when a 42-year-old Army veteran jumped the fence and made it inside the mansion. Crash boxes are a back-up to a back-up: If the two primary systems — radio communication and a separate alarm system — fail, then the crash boxes could help alert agents to intruders. To minimize friction, the Secret Service can be too accommodating to other groups at the White House, and perhaps in this case it was: Washington Post reporter Carol D. Leonnig found that the “boxes were silenced because the White House usher staff, whose office is near the front door, complained that they were noisy.”
We should expect the agency to adapt its protective methods to the wishes of its protectees to a reasonable degree, and Congress should make sure it has the financial resources to do so. On the campaign trail, for example, the Secret Service often eschews “show of force” security because candidates might want to be more approachable to voters and well-wishers. This might mean staging counterassault teams in places that aren’t visible to the public or the media.
3. The Secret Service gives Obama looser protection than it gave President George W. Bush.
“I’ve been hearing this for some time: ‘Well, the Secret Service, they’re trying to expose the president.’ You hear a lot of that from African Americans in particular,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) told the New York Times recently. This myth is particularly dangerous because it relates to lingering questions about how others treat Obama. White men, the theory goes, don’t want to protect a black president with the same rigor as when they’re guarding white presidents.
The myth is hard to refute because, on first glance, it would require us to inspect the minds of the agents on the president’s detail. But it’s worth noting that there were some egregious security lapses during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Bush. A man crashed a stolen plane into the White House in 1994. Another fired an automatic weapon through the North Lawn fence later that year. Bush was nearly hit in the head by two shoes thrown at him during a 2008 news conference in Iraq. And in 2005, during a speech in Tbilisi , someone in the crowd threw a live grenade, which didn’t explode, at Bush and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The Secret Service was heavily criticized after the incident and reviewed its procedure for screening visitors on foreign trips.
Another way to counter this myth would be to compare the size and capabilities of the presidential details during different administrations. But the Secret Service doesn’t generally release information about its protective methods. From my own observations, though, the security cordon around Obama is at least as tight as it was around Bush. And the cordon around Bush was much tighter than the one around Clinton.
4. Julia Pierson was named Secret Service director because she is a woman.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” early this month, Mika Brzezinski wondered aloud whether Pierson got the job because she’s a woman: “I want to know why she has that job as the first woman to lead the agency, and I want to know why she still has it.”
Pierson was for 30 years a dedicated and talented Secret Service agent. By most accounts, she was as qualified for her job as any of the four men Obama was considering. She was not, however, Obama’s first choice . David O’Connor was; he ultimately took himself out of the running because opponents started spreading rumors about him to the media, according to a person who spoke with him about the decision. If the president’s first choice was a white male, it seems that gender politics was not a priority for him on this decision.
No question that Pierson faced challenges a man would not have faced in that role. If the Secret Service is somewhat similar to every other male-dominated organization, everything from her reform initiatives to her outreach sessions would have been greeted with extra skepticism. A number of agents have told me that Pierson did not inspire confidence among the rank and file because agents thought she had been chosen to lead the agency simply because she is a woman.
5. The Secret Service stifles whistleblowers.
During a hearing about the recent security breaches, members of Congress cited agency whistleblowers who did not feel comfortable reporting their concerns internally. And according to The Post’s Leonnig, several of her sources approached her because they thought Secret Service management would not tolerate, or listen to, their complaints.
Because at least three senior agents and congressional aides with grudges against Pierson complained directly to me about some of her decisions, I think that at least some of the leaks to the media reflect personal pique as much as a genuine concern about the agency. But it’s also clear that a number of Secret Service employees with different agendas believe that the agency is headed in the wrong direction. If there’s even a perception in-house that Secret Service agents can’t speak honestly about security concerns, the next director must make accountability a priority.
Unfortunately, a lack of clear disciplinary policies means that some agents will always think others are getting away with things they shouldn’t. When agents and officers feel like they can bring matters to the attention of managers without being punished for it, they’ll be less likely to go elsewhere with the information.