Ronald Kessler is the author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect” and a former reporter for The Washington Post.
So far, the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service involves agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia . But the media have largely ignored a much bigger scandal at the agency: a lax management culture that condones cutting corners, directly endangering the life of the president.
A prime example, revealed in my book on life inside the agency, is that when pressured, Secret Service managers tell agents to let people into events without requiring that they pass through magnetometers or metal detectors. When an event is about to start and people are still waiting to enter, annoyed campaign staffers and both Bush and Obama White House staffers have routinely told the Secret Service to stop screening people and let them in. Backed by senior Secret Service management, agents comply.
It gets worse. When Vice President Biden threw out the first pitch April 6, 2009, at the Baltimore Orioles’ season opener, the Secret Service had not screened with magnetometers any of the more than 40,000 fans at Camden Yards. Biden’s attendance was announced beforehand, yet the vice president was not wearing a bulletproof vest under his navy polo shirt as he stood on the pitcher’s mound.
“A gunman or gunmen, from anywhere in the stands, could have gotten off multiple rounds before we could have gotten in the line of fire,” a current agent, outraged that the Secret Service would be so reckless, told me.
The Secret Service suspends screening at one in five major presidential and vice presidential events, according to another current agent. Think about that: A terrorist could bring in a grenade and take out President Obama or Biden.
Other examples of corner-cutting include management not insisting that agents pass firearms requalification and physical fitness tests. The agency covers that up by routinely asking agents to fill out their own test scores.
One agent on the president’s detail regularly fails handgun tests but has not been removed, agents with firsthand knowledge have told me. Another agent on the detail is so out of shape that she cannot open the heavy doors to exit the president’s limousine, I’m told.
Instead of removing her from the president’s detail and requiring her to pass the fitness tests that all agents are supposed to take every three months, Secret Service management has told drivers to try to park so it would be easier for her to swing open the vehicle door.
Equally shocking, the Secret Service is not equipped with the most powerful firearms, such as the Colt M4 carbine used by the FBI and even Amtrak police.
The lax management culture filters down to agents at every level. When Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary was under protection, she insisted that her agents take her friends to restaurants. They rightly refused. But she threw a fit and got her detail leader removed over the incident. Asked for comment for my book, she told me: “These stories are simply not true, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women of the Secret Service.”
Management’s decision to undercut its agent, which I confirmed with several sources, sends a message to Secret Service Uniformed Division officers at the White House gates: If they turn away fashionably dressed people such as Tareq and Michaele Salahi or Carlos Allen because they are not on the guest list for a state dinner, and it turns out they should have been on the list, the officers could be in trouble because their own managers may not back them.
Similarly, the lax management culture tells agents that it’s fine to hire prostitutes when traveling abroad, even though that puts them at risk of blackmail by a terrorist or foreign intelligence service.
Since I broke the Colombia story in The Post, many have asked me if it surprised me. It doesn’t. While Secret Service agents overall are dedicated and will take a bullet for the president, they have been let down by their management.
Despite the scandals and the dozens of examples of corner cutting, President Obama has repeatedly expressed confidence in the agency under Director Mark Sullivan. That is as reckless as President John F. Kennedy’s refusal to let agents ride on the rear running board of his limousine in Dallas. If agents had been there, they would have jumped on Kennedy after the first shot — which was not fatal — and saved his life.
When Obama took office, threats against the president were up 400 percent from when George W. Bush was in office. They have since returned to about 3,000 a year, roughly the number as when Bush was president.
The Secret Service has been derelict in its duty to the American people and its own brave agents. It should not take another tragedy to bring about reform.