When it comes to Secret Service corner cutting, the breach of White House security when a couple crashed a state dinner party was the tip of the iceberg.
A Secret Service internal report obtained by The Washington Post lists 91 security breaches from 1980 to 2003, but they are attributable mainly to human error.
In contrast, a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer’s decision to let Michaele and Tareq Salahi into a state dinner at the White House was a conscious, deliberate decision to ignore the fact that they were not on the guest list and to avoid doing a background check on them.
That decision is an expected consequence of the Secret Service’s practice of cutting corners on a wholesale basis since the Department of Homeland Security acquired it in 2003.
Considering the demands on the Secret Service, its budget of $1.4 billion a year is so minimal that the agency does not have the personnel to do its job properly. At the same time, Secret Service management has been taking risks that could threaten the life of the president and the courageous agents who protect him.
The agency has let people into events routinely without doing magnetometer or metal detection screening. It has cut the size of counter-assault teams. It has failed to keep up to date with the latest and most powerful firearms. It has bowed to pressure from political aides who consider security a nuisance. It has not even allowed agents time to do regular firearms requalification and physical training, then covered that up by asking agents to fill in their own test scores.
Instead of asking for more funds, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan takes a passive approach, boasting that the agency “makes do with less.” He even compares the hardships of overworked and overwhelmed agents with the challenges soldiers endure in Iraq.
“Let’s face it,” Sullivan told me for my book, “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,” “Everybody would like to have more money in their budget. I was looking at my budget, and I was saying boy I would love to have this or have that. Then in thinking of all the sacrifice that all of us have to do — I mean we’re in the middle of two wars now — and I looked at the front page of the Washington Post one day, and I saw several Marines going to bed that night. They were going to bed on a concrete floor with like a foam cushion maybe an inch thick for a mattress.”
These men, he said, are fighting for our country, not knowing “when they wake up tomorrow morning and go through their day if they’re going to be alive to go to bed again.”
In contrast to soldiers in Iraq, “We don’t have it bad at all,” Sullivan said. “And everybody has to do their part. And I think I owe it to them, I think this whole organization owes it to the people that pay our salary, to be just as efficient and effective and be as good a steward of the government resources as we can. And I think we are.”
Sullivan’s effort to compare Secret Service agents with 22-year-old soldiers in Iraq shows how out of touch with reality Secret Service management is. In contrast to soldiers serving in Iraq, veteran Secret Service agents are being offered up to four times their salary by the private sector to leave the agency.
Because of that, senseless transfer policies, and understaffing, the Secret Service attrition rate has been increasing. Agents say a third to half of the members of their own training classes when they joined the Secret Service eight or 10 years ago have since left the agency. That means the agency has less-experienced and often less-qualified agents.
One director who got it was Brian Stafford, who headed the agency from 1999 to 2003. He ordered the report listing security breaches, many of which are described in “In the President’s Secret Service.” Because Stafford perceived the problems and took an aggressive approach, the Secret Service’s budget, even before the 9/11 attack, rose by as much as 25 percent a year after adjustment for inflation.
“When I became director, one of the first things I did was pick the brains of the special agents in charge of each field office,” Stafford told me. “What I learned was we had quality-of-life issues and an attrition rate that was going up. It wasn’t because agents weren’t passionate about their jobs. It was because they didn’t have a life.”
Specifically, Stafford found that overtime “was way too high. We were working people too hard,” he said.
With the budget increases, Stafford hired another thousand agents.
Yet in the years after 9/11, the Secret Service budget actually declined when inflation is taken into account.
President Obama has said he has complete confidence in the Secret Service, signaling that he sees no need for a change in management. Given the clear warning signs, that is just as reckless as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to ignore specific tips that Bernie Madoff’s company had no assets.
But in the case of Obama, in the view of many current Secret Service agents interviewed for the book, the result could be a security breach with deadly consequences.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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