US Secret Service is broken: How can we fix it?

The problems plaguing the US Secret Service are not recent and they won't be fixed overnight.

    The problems plaguing the Secret Service did not start under Pierson's tenure, writes Reardon [EPA]
    The problems plaguing the Secret Service did not start under Pierson's tenure, writes Reardon [EPA]

    On September 19, Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old Iraq War veteran, did what up until then was considered the unthinkable. Some would even say what should have been the impossible. He breached what is arguably the most - or should be the most - secure residence in the world, where he could have easily, if the opportunity presented itself, kill or seriously injure the president of the United States, his wife or their two children.

    In not much more than a minute, Gonzales managed to scale the north fence of the White House, run 60 metres across the lawn, and enter the president's residence through an unlocked door. He then bolted past the stairs leading up to the First Family's private quarters before finally being tackled by a Secret Service agent who just happened to be passing by after finishing his shift - the only positive event that transpired during the entire incident. After being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, officers found in Gonzalez's possession, a folding knife with a three-and-a-half inch serrated blade.

    In all, five layers of security at the White House failed epically during Gonzalez's breach. Marksmen on the roof never noticed him scaling the fence or running across the lawn. Armed agents inside and outside the fence line failed to stop or even notice him. Their handlers never released powerful guard dogs trained to intercept intruders between the fence line and White House. The doors to the White House were unlocked. And the armed agent inside the White House where Gonzales made entry was so surprised with his sudden appearance that he just pushed her aside and kept running. Seriously?

    Fortunately, US President Barack Obama and his family had just left the White House. But what if Gonzalez had made his infamous breech just a few minutes earlier? And what if, instead of being armed with a knife, he had been carrying a firearm or wearing a wearing a suicide vest?

    Series of incidents

    The US Secret Service is broken. Indeed, Gonzalez's breech at the White House is just the latest in a long series of serious security incidents that have plagued that agency for the last several years. To wit, on September 16, an armed security contractor with three prior arrests for assault was allowed on an elevator with the president in Atlanta, in violation of agency protocols. Making matters worse, the president was never told until just minutes before the press reported it earlier this week, suggesting an attempt by the Secret Service senior leadership to cover it up.

    In another infamous incident, 13 agents were involved in a widely publicised prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Columbia, on the eve of the president's visit there in April 2012 for the Summit of the Americas - talk about lack of discretion, poor judgement and the potential for compromising the president's security through blackmail. And the list goes on.

    Questions surround White House security

    What was once one of the most respected and professional security services in the world, has failed the president and the American people time and again in recent years. And that's sad. Through much of my career in the FBI, I had the honour and privilege of working side by side with Secret Service agents on many occasions. They were proud, hard working, dedicated and totally professional at the "street agent" level. So what happened?

    In his best-selling 2009 book "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect", Ronald Kessler summed up many of the agency's problems to being severely underfunded and stretched too thin, made worse by the unrealistic belief of their senior leadership that they could do more with less. That's part of the problem, and it is something Congress can and must address. The easy fix so to speak. The real elephant in the room, however, is ineffective leadership from the top on down.

    In the 2013 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report, published by the Partnership for Public Service, the Secret Service ranked near the bottom of 300 agencies surveyed in five different leadership categories - a trend that, for the Secret Service, has continued to worsen in the last 10 years. And in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General report on the Secret Service, released in December 2013, barely half of that agency's employees felt they "can report a suspected violation of any law, rule, regulation, or standards of conduct without fear of retaliation".

    Those two reports are significant. When a workforce loses trust and confidence in its leadership, something has to be done. And it needs to be far-reaching. Not just at the top, but all the way down.

    In denial

    In Congressional hearings earlier this week, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was grilled time and again for her agency's continued failures. And for a change, Congress put aside its usual partisan bickering, as they were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of her leadership. A 30-year Secret Service veteran, hand-picked by the president last year to take over and restore its image in the wake of the 2012 prostitution scandal, she appeared in denial as to the gravity of what was happening to this once proud agency.

    Rather than recognising the Gonzales breech of White House security as symptomatic of a wider problem, she categorised it as an isolated tactical failure. In fairness to Pierson, the problems plaguing the Secret Service did not start under her tenure, and the changes necessary to correct them will not happen overnight. However, after more than a year on the job, those problems have only grown worse, and Pierson showed she was not up to the task of correcting them.

    The first step in the return to order and discipline at the Secret Service was announced on October 1. Pierson resigned under pressure from both the White House and a bipartisan Congress. In short, the president and the American people lost confidence in her ability to do her job. The second step, also announced on October 1, was to appoint an independent commission to review the agency from the top down - typical Washington politics, where Congress shows outrage and appoints a commission to investigate, the results of which get buried in the bureaucratic heap. That cannot happen this time. The commission needs to dig deep, leaving no stones unturned, and Congress needs to follow up on their recommendations. If there are funding and staffing shortages, they need to be corrected. And just as importantly, weak leaders, at whatever level, need to be removed.

    The Secret Service motto is "Worthy of Trust and Confidence". Right now, those are little more than words on paper. It's time to make the changes that give it real meaning again. That transformation starts with leadership. Not just at the top, but all the way down. The hardworking agents, uniformed patrolmen and other professionals of the Secret Service deserve as much. The president's safety depends on it.

    Martin Reardon is a Senior Vice President with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and Senior Director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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