clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

A retired Secret Service agent reveals the agency's biggest problem

During most of my two-decade career as an agent, the Secret Service was small, elite, and part of the Department of the Treasury. We were generally well-led and avoided many of the political issues other government agencies seemed to experience all the time. That changed in the aftermath of 9/11, when the Secret Service was torn from Treasury and forced to become a part of the new, mammoth Department of Homeland Security. Most of the problems in today's Secret Service started with the move to DHS.

Now a series of embarrassing revelations have called into question the Secret Service's competence. The mean-spirited, classless, bipartisan beat down by the congressional oversight committee of former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson is now mercifully concluded. Her painful — yet very necessary for the good of the Secret Service — resignation tendered, where does the Secret Service go from here?

Two issues must be addressed and dealt with almost immediately in order for the Secret Service to regain its reputation. First, the Secret Service must be returned to the Department of the Treasury. Second, the top-level management must be replaced, and the new director must be from outside the Secret Service. If these drastic yet equally important steps are not achieved, the Secret Service will eventually self-destruct.

The unfortunate move to the Department of Homeland Security

I was part of the Secret Service both during the days in Treasury and after the transition to Department of Homeland Security, so I saw the changes first-hand. The transformation of the Secret Service from largely apolitical to political became obvious to me when I returned to the Presidential Protective Division in 2003. I'd been away for several years as an instructor. At the time of my departure from Presidential Protective Division in 1994, the Secret Service was in full control of the White House. The Department of the Treasury rarely became deeply involved in Secret Service business. When I returned in 2003, however, it was clear that the White House staff and DHS were in control of things, not the Secret Service.

This was apparent during a meeting I attended where a top-level supervisor wanted suggestions as to how to better provide security at the White House without offending the president's staff. This was my first signal that things were not as they should be, and had changed greatly during my absence.

It was "go along to get along" rather than taking an aggressive posture regarding the president's safety

While the White House staff and the Secret Service must work in harmony for the president's security to be complete, it is the Secret Service, not the White House staff, that is ultimately responsible for the safety of the president. For political purposes, the staff wants to expose the president to as much media and potential voters as possible, while the Secret Service wishes to keep the president's public exposure to a minimum.

This polarization of purpose has always existed between staff and the Secret Service. During the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, the Secret Service was usually able to reach an acceptable compromise with staff regarding security. By 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, that had clearly changed. It was obvious to all agents who'd served under previous administrations that staff had taken over much too large a role in security as compared with the past. This was dangerous on a large scale. Perhaps the worst part about it was that while we senior agents knew this new attitude was wrong, the younger agents whose only point of reference was George W. Bush's PPD simply thought this was normal operating procedure. The grim joke around the detail was that Secret Service agents had become gun-carrying members of the staff.

President George W. Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003 (Getty Images)

This unsafe situation of staff now meddling in security issues did not come about by the wish of the Secret Service but was rather a direct result of the politicization of the Secret Service under DHS that had not existed under Treasury. PPD top supervisors now began to find themselves pressured by the president's chief of staff to approve the wishes of the president, with only feeble obligatory pushback in many cases. In the Secret Service PPD, it was now "go along to get along" rather than taking an aggressive posture regarding the president's safety. To object or provide too much resistance toward the staff could endanger careers. This new attitude of the tail wagging the dog was a major contributing factor in mine and many other senior agents' decisions to retire and move to other endeavors outside the Secret Service.

This attitude of appeasing staff at any cost was especially evident when President George W. Bush came aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to announce "mission accomplished," strapped into the right seat of an S3 Viking jet aircraft. Carrier aviation is one of the most dangerous endeavors known to modern man. To allow a sitting president to become part of the Viking crew was more than unwise — it was actually quite insane. Ramp strikes, broken arresting wires, or engine malfunctions contribute to numerous fatalities in carrier aviation each year. When the idea was brought forth, the service of course objected. But in the end, staff won due to their strong wish to get the mother of all photo ops for the upcoming re-election campaign. No sitting president had ever done anything more colorful, or foolhardy.

The compromise — which was really no compromise at all — was that was that the president used the Viking, which had an available seat for the agent in charge, rather than an F18 Hornet, which had only two seats: one for the president and one for the pilot. Had there been a fatal accident, the agent in charge would have had no more power to change the outcome than if he had been standing on deck watching the catastrophe unfold. And, had such a tragedy occurred, staff would have immediately distanced themselves from the issue, leaving the Secret Service to assume all responsibility.

Another problem is that the Secret Service grew in size too quickly after 9/11. The nasty result was that many substandard applicants became agents that would have never been selected in pre-9/11 times. As an instructor at the Secret Service academy, this decline in quality was readily noticeable. Some of the agents hired during this period have become involved in the various Secret Service issues that have recently come to light.

Why the new Secret Service director should come from the outside

The other change that must come about for the Secret Service to rehabilitate its reputation: brand new, leadership, from the outside. After Pierson resigned, in an unprecedented move, President Obama brought his former special agent in charge, Joe Clancy, out of retirement to become the interim director of the Secret Service.  What makes this unprecedented is the fact that in the past, when a director retired, the deputy director became the acting director until a new selection could be made. The president's decision to bring in a retired agent to run the Service was a clear signal to all that the president does not have faith in the remaining Secret Service upper management to run the agency even for the few weeks it will take to name a permanent director.

As far as the president's selection of Joe Clancy, Joe had an outstanding career as an agent, and I had the honor of serving with him both on the Presidential Protective Division and Counter Assault Team.  A man that truly understands presidential protection and White House security, he is also one of the finest men I have ever personally known.  His appointment, however, is a stopgap measure only, designed to keep things in the Secret Service in a stable holding pattern until the pending investigation of the service can be completed, and the swearing in of a new permanent director can be carried out.

While Clancy's appointment is a good start at rebuilding the reputation and prestige of the Secret Service, the selection of the correct person for the permanent job will largely determine whether the Secret Service can make a comeback or lose forever its place of honor as one of the most trusted agencies in the United States government. This selection will be the most crucial in the history of the Secret Service and installing anyone as director who possesses anything other than the perfect combination of strong leadership and sense of mission will result in perhaps worse incidents than the ones we have seen in the past three years regarding the Secret Service. The Service now finds itself in a make-or-break situation that calls for a true leader at the helm, not a bureaucrat or politician.

If true change is to take place within this organization, and a new culture to emerge, a person with fresh ideas will be needed

The primary question to be answered in this selection process is: should the new director be someone already within the ranks of the Service, or someone who has never carried a Secret Service commission book? And the answer, in my view, is to pick someone from the outside. In order to make the drastic changes needed to right the Service and prepare it for new protective challenges, a person with a strong proven record of leadership is needed that will not be afraid of offending his or her new subordinates, as well as not being a political crony of the president or the secretary of DHS. In order for the Secret Service to recover, it must be devoid of any outside political influence or pressure. This would be a big change in Secret Service culture: All modern-day directors, going back to the John F. Kennedy era, have been agents.

Regardless of what the rank and file may want, given the current status of the Secret Service, it is highly likely that the next director will come from the outside — and that's a good thing. If true change is to take place within this organization, and a new culture to emerge, a person with fresh ideas will be needed.  This crucial selection does not include yet another agent whose best friends will be his or her colleagues in the Secret Service headquarters. It will require someone with no allegiances within the Secret Service and few political ties who will be able to make difficult decisions for change without fear of becoming unpopular with their former peers. This person should be a retired military officer from the US Army or US Marine Corps with actual combat experience, preferably with a rank of lieutenant colonel or full colonel. Officers of this rank who have recently commanded a battalion or regiment would give the Secret Service back its discipline and sense of mission it seems to have lost and that no civilian can restore.

Still, a new director alone, whether selected internally or externally, will not effect the desired changes.

In order to make needed changes in the organization, not only will a new director be needed, but also a new deputy director and an entirely new cast of assistant directors.  These upper-level managers determine the so-called culture of the Secret Service, which clearly needs changing. As the eighth floor (the floor the director occupies at headquarters) goes, so goes the Secret Service.

Many of those who now occupy the highest levels of Secret Service management have served for close to 30 years. Some, including former director Pierson, have occupied offices at headquarters for a decade or more, causing stagnation of leadership and disconnect between them and the operational Secret Service. This practice of making a career in headquarters must end if the service is to move forward.

In spite of its recent failures, America has much to be proud of in their Secret Service. While their failures are published for all to see, their many successes are seldom mentioned. Each day the president survives is another victory for the Secret Service. Few outside this enigmatic agency will ever know the full story of the difficulties in keeping the president safe. These men and women are dedicated to their cause and are willing to die if necessary to protect the office of the presidency. What is most needed then is an entirely new group of top-level managers chosen from the best people possible rather than selections based upon political correctness. These new leaders must be worthy of trust and confidence from both their subordinates and the American people.


A debt ceiling breach would be bad bad bad bad bad


Target giving in to conservative pressure on Pride is not a great sign


Is the debt ceiling stalemate just posturing — or is this time truly different?

View all stories in The Latest