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Analysis: Secret Service Failings Place President in Jeopardy

Ronald Kessler By Thursday, 19 April 2012 12:45 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C. — Members of Congress have reacted to the Secret Service scandal involving prostitutes with their usual huffing and puffing. They want hearings, they will hold everyone accountable, they will get to the bottom of the problem.

But hearings and bluster will not fix an agency whose failings have been placing the president’s life in jeopardy.

A Secret Service agent examines a 1960s photo of the White House at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn on Wednesday during President Obama's visit.
(Getty Images)
Having broken the story in the Washington Post about agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia, I am often asked by television anchors whether I am shocked by the scandal. My answer is no. My book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect” detailed dozens of examples of even more serious corner cutting and laxness by Secret Service management.

After the book came out, Michaele and Tareq Salahi went prancing into a White House state dinner even though they were not on the guest list. In a Newsmax story, I revealed that a third intruder, Carlos Allen, also crashed the party. None of the party crashers underwent the required background check before gaining access to the White House.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has attributed the problem to a culture where agents have “wheels up parties” when the president is on his way home from a trip.

Issa is off base. The problem lies squarely with Secret Service management.

The corner cutting began in 2003 when the Department of Homeland Security took over the Secret Service from the Treasury Department. Forced to compete for budgets with other national security agencies, the Secret Service failed to demand funds necessary to keep pace with its burgeoning duties.

Besides protecting the president, vice president, first family, and key members of the White House staff and Cabinet, the Secret Service now protects visiting heads of state, presidential candidates, G8 summits, the United Nations General Assembly, national nominating conventions, and other designated special national security events. On top of that, it investigates counterfeiting and financial crimes.

Over time, the corner cutting has become more pronounced. Secret Service management proudly boasts that “we make do with less.” Instead of asking for enough funds, the agency has placed increasing pressure on agents to work long overtime hours. Rather than partying, that has led to exhausted agents having no home life.

“How tired do you get? Just imagine sleeping three or four hours a night for a week,” says an agent.

The pressures have led to low morale and an increasingly high turnover rate, driving away experienced agents and adding to training costs. More ominously, because of management’s lax attitude, Secret Service agents at some events allow people to enter without undergoing magnetometer screening. That is like letting passengers into an airplane without first passing them through metal detectors.

When Vice President Joe Biden threw the first pitch at an Orioles game, the Secret Service did no magnetometer screening. Terrorists could have come in with grenades and taken him out.

In its misguided scrimping, the Secret Service has not been keeping up to date with the latest firearms used by the FBI and military. It does not allow agents time for regular firearms requalification or physical training. The agency covers up that practice by dishonestly telling agents to fill out their own test scores.

A female Secret Service agent on the president’s detail is so out of shape that she cannot open the heavy doors to exit the president’s limousine. Secret Service management had a solution: Instead of removing her from the detail, management told drivers to park so the agent, who is a supervisor, could more easily swing open the doors. If the president were shot, she could not help carry him to safety.

If that is not bad enough, the agency caves to political pressure, further jeopardizing security. When agents refused to drive friends of Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary to restaurants, she threw a fit and got her detail leader removed. In other words, instead of backing the agent who is doing his job, management reassigned him.

Routinely, the agency bows to demands of protectees that counter-assault teams remain at a distance, rendering them virtually useless in the event of an assassination attempt.

The fact that Secret Service management does not back personnel when they are just doing their jobs contributed to Secret Service uniformed officers’ reluctance to turn away the party crashers at the state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The officers undoubtedly figured they could have been in trouble with their own management if they barred the intruders and it turned out they were supposed to be invited.

Rather than request substantially more funds, the Secret Service assures President Obama and members of Congress that the agency is fulfilling its job with the modest increases it requests, even as it takes on more duties and sleep-deprived agents work almost around the clock.

If the Secret Service has fallen down on its duties, it is unexcelled at providing special access to members of Congress and sweet-talking them and the president into thinking that it is competent.

When the Secret Service proudly shows members of Congress its Rowley Training Facility, it wows them with supposedly unrehearsed feats of heroism that bring down the bad guys. In fact, as revealed in my book, those scenarios are dishonestly rehearsed beforehand.

Neither the DHS inspector general nor Congress has penetrated the agency’s invincible veneer to uncover the shortcomings.

How can something as shocking as waiving magnetometer screening continue for so long without being exposed and stopped? The same way the FBI and CIA allowed the so-called “wall” to prevent them from sharing information with each other for so long, impairing the bureau’s ability to detect and stop a terrorist attack. The same way the Securities and Exchange Commission brushed aside specific allegations that Bernard Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme without assets.

Inevitably, corner cutting by the Secret Service has created a culture where some agents feel free to disregard the rules governing their personal conduct. Contrary to Issa’s observation, agents do not routinely engage in wild parties.

But the seriousness of what happened in Colombia cannot be overestimated. The agents could have been blackmailed by prostitutes into cooperating with a foreign intelligence service to plant bugging devices and obtain secrets or to cooperate with a terrorist intent on assassinating the president.

When addressing the situation, President Obama said he would be “angry” if the allegations in the press turned out to be true. But in commenting to me for the original story, the Secret Service confirmed that agents were being withdrawn for misconduct. Being angry is not the way to fix an agency by holding management accountable.

Obama has even praised the Secret Service for acting swiftly after the scandal erupted, as if sending home disgraced agents was somehow a sign of competence. Tragically, the president appears to be oblivious to the risk to his own life.

That recklessness is not without precedent. Even though the Civil War was raging, President Lincoln ignored advice from his military aides that he accept security protection. He finally agreed to have one Washington, D.C. police officer guard him.

But on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, the officer wandered off to have a drink at a tavern near Ford’s Theater.

Similarly, for the sake of appearances, President Kennedy refused to let Secret Service agents ride on the rear bumper of his limousine in Dallas. If they had been there, they would have jumped on him and saved his life after the first bullet, which was not fatal, was fired.

The Secret Service once operated under the highest standards. In the view of many current Secret Service agents, the result of the agency’s corner cutting could be a security breach leading to an assassination.

“We don’t have enough people or the equipment to do protection the way they advertise they do,” a veteran agent says. “And how we have not had an incident up to this point is truly amazing, a miracle.”

If Secret Service management is risking an assassination, it is also letting down its own agents. Secret Service agents are patriots who will take a bullet for the president. FBI agents admire them more than any other law enforcement officers. Yet most Americans have no idea what is behind protecting a president, the first family, the vice president, and presidential candidates.

They may see agents at an event or a shopping mall outside a store — dressed in suits, wearing the telltale clear spiral wire that wraps around their ear and disappears somewhere down their shirt collar. And then they think of the news story they read that morning, that the president or a presidential candidate is in town, and they realize who they are.

If the agents seem a little distracted from the hustle of the street, marching to a different drummer, it is because they are tuning into a sort of different dimension, one of heightened awareness. They are looking for anything out of the ordinary in the passersby — a man in a strange hat who nervously looks into the store. Anything odd, like beads of sweat on a forehead when the day is chilly.

It is a good day when the agents can epitomize the poet John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Most days aren’t like that. Most days entail risk and demands and meticulous planning. But the careful work is sabotaged by the Secret Service’s practice of dangerously cutting corners.

If another assassination occurs, a new Warren Commission will be appointed to study the tragedy. It will find that the Secret Service was shockingly derelict in its duty to the American people and to its own elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.

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Thursday, 19 April 2012 12:45 PM
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