The Problem With the Secret Service

The Problem With the Secret Service

By Carl M. Cannon - October 5, 2014

Two U.S. Secret Service directors have retired in the past 18 months. It’s a good start.

The vaunted reputation of the agency—previously an elite unit of the Treasury Department—has always been better than its track record. The Secret Service knew it, too, but this image of competence was cultivated partly as a deterrent. After September 11, 2001, things changed because edifices and agencies that symbolically projected American power were themselves possible targets, so the nation’s security systems were hardened.

Or so we thought. Now Americans learn that despite spending $1.5 billion annually to put 6,700 officers and agents in the field, a bungling Secret Service—now housed uncomfortably inside the sprawling U.S. Department of Homeland Security—has actually put this country at risk. How did this happen?

Let’s start with the image-making. Hollywood films have traditionally portrayed the president’s protective detail as brave, resourceful, and dedicated agents confronting a confounding trio of obstacles: amazingly skilled bad guys, the reluctant cooperation of the first family, and the hidebound brass of their own agency. Except for the first conceit—would-be assassins tend to be unstable bunglers—this portrayal accurately reflects both the public’s perception and reality of life in the Secret Service, an agency that only gets noticed for its mistakes.

“In the Line of Fire,” the tautly written 1993 thriller starring Clint Eastwood as agent Frank Horrigan, centers on this dichotomy. Horrigan was a rookie in the Dallas detail the day President Kennedy was killed. Corrigan is determined tragedy not happen again. He’s willing to buck his superiors and give his life for the president, knowing that’s he protecting not just a person—or democracy itself—but his agency’s reputation. But he’s not mawkish about it.

“I normally prefer not to get to know the people I’m protecting,” he tells a young female agent.

“Why’s that?” she replies.

“Well, you never know,” Eastwood deadpans. “You might decide they’re not worth taking a bullet for.”

This tension between the protectors and the protectees is at the heart of “Guarding Tess,” the charming Nicolas Cage-Shirley MacLaine buddy movie that came out the following year. But such images have been crowded out of our minds by recent stories, most of them revealed in investigative reports the past few days in The Washington Post or in two recent books on the Secret Service by journalist Ronald Kessler.

In February 2013, Secret Service Director Mark J. Sullivan was nudged into retirement after a stormy tenure remembered for State Dinner gate crashers and tales of agents consorting with hookers while on overseas assignments. But what few Americans knew until recently is that when shots were fired into the White House residence in 2011, the Secret Service mishandled everything. Supervisors at a nearby command center informed agents in the White House—who knew better—that no shots had been fired. They changed their story to say that two rival D.C. gangs had been in a shootout. Who concocted such fictions is still unknown, and when questioned on Capitol Hill last week, Sullivan’s successor, the now-deposed Julia Pierson, seemed clueless.

Members of Congress were only asking these questions because they’d read about it in The Post; the reason congressional hearings were being held in the first place is because a man carrying a knife managed to scale the White House fence, enter the White House residence and run through much of the main floor being tackled by an off-duty agent who just happened to be there.

The initial response to this appalling breach by Pierson’s agency was to praise itself for showing “tremendous restraint”—apparently for not shooting the suspect. This bizzaro statement prompted an almost unique response on Capitol Hill: The most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats on the House Oversight Committee were equally incensed.

“‘Tremendous restraint’ is not what we’re looking for,” Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz told Pierson. “Don’t let somebody get close to the president.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said he was so upset by Pierson’s testimony he had trouble sleeping that night. He homed in on a “culture of intimidation” described by Kessler in which Secret Service management rewards those who foster the agency’s “invincible” myth, while punishing those who point out security lapses.

Even before the latest episode, Congress had concluded that this administration was in denial about what it takes to protect a president. Alarms set to ring when an intruder breached the White House perimeter had been turned down at the behest of the White House usher’s office, a request that would typically come from a member of the first family. More tellingly, the administration requested a $1.49 billion appropriation for all Secret Service functions for the fiscal year, a decline of $60 million. Even stingy House Republicans who closed the federal government last year found this inexplicable, and restored the funds.

Pierson is gone, and Sullivan, too. But fixing the Secret Service is going to take congressional action, a change of culture at the agency Service, and a new attitude inside the White House itself. This last point is not a trivial one.

The Secret Service began operations in 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, but not to protect the president. It was created to protect the U.S. currency from counterfeiters. Guarding the leader of the nation? That task was left to Lincoln’s onetime law partner and self-appointed bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, a friend who warned the president in an impassioned letter to stop going to the theater unprotected.

But Ward Lamon was in Richmond the fateful night the following April when Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater. Yet it still took Congress and the American people—and presidents themselves—far too long to recognize the danger. That failure is inexplicable: Between 1865 and 1901 three American presidents were gunned down by strangers. Only after the last of these, the assassination of William McKinley, did Congress authorize the Secret Service to protect the president.

It has had a checkered record doing so. Theodore Roosevelt, only in office because of McKinley’s murder, was surprised to find himself in the Red Room with a visitor who’d talked his way past a guard—and was carrying a concealed handgun.

While campaigning in 1912, Roosevelt was shot in the chest—a folded up 50-page speech in his breast pocket saved his life—and two decades later President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was the target of a gunman who killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead. Harry Truman was the target of an organized assassination plot by Puerto Rican nationals, who killed an agent instead. Between1963 and 1981, President Kennedy and his brother were both assassinated; two different women tried to shoot President Ford; and Ronald Reagan and his press secretary were both seriously wounded by a gunman.

Today, the Secret Service’s carefully constructed reputation is in tatters. Hollywood reflected this, too, in “White House Down,” a preposterous film starring Channing Tatum as the action hero.The villain is James Woods, the agent heading the president’s protective detail. He not only shoots his colleagues—a clever metaphor itself—but the president himself. It’s time for a remake.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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