Dispatches from the Potomac#09 | A Shaky Secret Service

In this edition, we will look at the crisis being faced by the Secret Service, the organization responsible for the personal protection of US government officials.

This article was originally written in October for publication in the November 2014 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

In mid-September a former US soldier carrying a knife scaled the fence surrounding the White House grounds and was able to penetrate far into the first floor. The point where the man was detained was one floor below the residential space of the Obama family, although no family members were present at the time. This was a major lapse by the Secret Service.

This invasion incident also exposed a pattern of deliberate concealment by the Secret Service authorities. Initially, they issued several reports stating that the intruder had been stopped just after entering the building; but, ten days later the truth was reported in the Washington Post, causing waves of criticism.

The following day, the same newspaper revealed another case of concealment by the authorities. Three days before the White House invasion, during a visit by President Obama to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (“CDC”) in Atlanta for a meeting about measures to deal with Ebola Virus Disease, a private security guard at the CDC who had a criminal record was permitted to board an elevator with the President while carrying a gun. The Secret Service became suspicious about this security guard and had checked up on his right to carry a weapon, but avoided any publicity. Although the newspaper did not disclose the source of these two reports, it appears that there is someone inside the organization who is frustrated with the current Secret Service, and the lack of effort to correct the culture of secrecy or any of the deficiencies of the security systems, which continue to place the President at risk.

To be sure, other members of the media as well as Congress did not remain silent about the exposure of these Secret Service gaffes and the systematic concealment. Members of Congress demanded a review of the security systems and a clarification of responsibilities of Director Pierson and the Secret Service authorities. At a hearing in Congress, Director Pierson did not present any persuasive testimony, and did not convey a sense of trying to protect the organization or her subordinates. As a result, there was a widespread bipartisan feeling that Director Pierson should resign. The Obama administration also began the motions for dismissal after hearing the testimony, and the day after the hearing, the Director herself announced that she would resign.

Did becoming part of Homeland Security cause the problem?

However, the resignation of Director Pierson by itself will not further the rebuilding of the Secret Service. This Director only held the position for 18 months, so her impact was limited. A number of experts have pointed out that the source of the Secret Service dysfunction can be traced to the transfer of the Secret Service to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

The Secret Service was established in 1865 by the then-President Lincoln as a secret investigative division of the Treasury Department. The original function was to investigate and prevent financial crimes, such as counterfeiting. After the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, the responsibility for protecting the president was added to their duties, and was gradually expanded to include other government officials, such as former presidents and presidential candidates. Then, following the terrorist attacks in 2001, a new Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003 to integrate the multiple protection, investigation and intelligence functions that were scattered throughout a number of federal agencies, and the Secret Service became part of this new department.

While part of the Treasury Department, the Secret Service was special, with a certain independence as a unique law enforcement agency, encountering very little competition or interference from other agencies. In this environment, the Secret Service was recognized as an elite unit, with a clear mission, and there was a strong sense of professional pride and high morale, even without high salaries. Since it was a small, independent organization, promotions were also predominantly made from those with field experience protecting important people. In fact, the director had experience guarding the president.

With the transfer to the Department of Homeland Security, the “ecosystem” of the Secret Service seems to have changed significantly from that of the Treasury Department era. They are no longer a unique group, and now must compete with other related agencies, giving rise to hierarchy within the department, and a distinction between the major and minor players. It can be hard to maintain morale if the salaries are lower than at the other agencies within the department, but it is difficult to increase compensation under the pressure of severe spending cuts. Furthermore, since they are now under the umbrella of the huge Department of Homeland Security, there is a possibility of changes to the promotion policies, such as a greater emphasis on aspects other than field experience, such as administration and human resources. Director Pierson was promoted to the top position without having any experience in an administrative department. The series of these kinds of changes has robbed the Secret Service of its sense of mission and recognition as the elite in the field of VIP protection. With the erosion of morale and professionalism, it cannot be denied that the security systems might be becoming unstable.

The reforms of the new Director must be made

However, the Secret Service will not be transferred back into the Treasury Department. Nevertheless, the protection of VIPs is an important role; but, creating better conditions within the Department of Homeland Security to preserve the elite position of the Secret Service is likely to be difficult in light of the balance with other agencies. It can only be hoped that a new Director who can inspire confidence and pride will be selected, and a new ecosystem will be created for the Secret Service, so that there can be some progress on restoring the security systems. In the same way as the slight shifting of the fences around the White House grounds after the intruder incident, although a change may appear trivial and pointless, the only thing to do is to continue to make a variety of efforts to change the organization.