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What's Wrong with the US Secret Service?

The Secret Service has a number of phantoms to confront, including a cadre of supervisors who might have been good agents but make very bad managers of human beings. Another big problem: rampant alcoholism.

by Marc Ambinder
Oct 2 2014, 6:35pm

President Barack Obama and Secret Service agents hanging near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photo via the White House's Flickr feed

"Horsepower, Signature is wheels up…"

On Friday, September 19, Secret Service agents and Uniformed Division officers arrayed on the South Lawn of the White House watched as Marine One, with President Barack Obama on board, disappeared into the reflection of the setting sun off the Washington monument.

Once the helicopter was out of view, it was time to herd cats. There were media people to escort back to the press room, signaling equipment to move off the lawn, and posts to reoccupy. A counter-assault team—five exquisitely armored commandos—began the slow trek through the basement of the residence of the White House to their duty room.

Flagship, all posts, resume normal traffic.”

Whenever the president moves in or around the White House, the basic job of the Uniformed Division (UD) officers is to freeze everyone in place. Even if you’ve got a White House parking pass, you won’t be allowed to enter the grounds until the presidential package is secure. On the radio, there is absolute silence. No one talks unless they’ve got an emergency.

A few minutes after the on-duty dispatcher manning the UD’s White House Command Post, code-named Flagship, gave the all-clear, a 42-year-old army veteran with a limp climbed over a fence and ran up the famous expanse of green grass. He rounded a corner, hopped up the steps to the entrance of the North Portico, and walked inside the White House.

The scamper across 70 yards took all of about 25 seconds.

And now we’re all asking: What the hell is going on with the United States Secret Service?

How can the agency that provides a secure environment when the president travels into war zones, successfully keeps America’s first black president out of harm’s way, reliably ensures the safety of half the world’s most prominent politicians during the UN General Assembly each year, pulls off the logistical decathlon that is a presidential campaign, and is harder to get into than Harvard be the center of so many public, self-incurred humiliations? How could they fuck up like this? And why are these mistakes happening more frequently?

On Tuesday, we learned that a security contractor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a man with several arrests for assault, accompanied Obama and his detail in an elevator on September 16. The guard acted inappropriately, and the agents took notice, detaining him for questioning after Obama got off. When the guard’s supervisor scolded the man and asked him to turn over his weapon, the Secret Service agents on scene were floored. What happened? This guy wasn't supposed to have a weapon. He wasn't a police officer. His name had apparently never been run through the National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center database.

“This was a pure screw-up, a failure of protocol, a security threat, and something that shouldn’t have happened,” a federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation told VICE. “Unfortunately, it was made public at a time when [director Julia Pierson] had no margin for error.”

A second source who has been briefed on the probe’s status says that members of the advance team had sought and received assurances from the guard’s supervisor that he was a trusted employee. After all, he worked on site for a sensitive government agency. The Presidential Protective Division (PPD) agents working that day were flummoxed, though, and according to witnesses they seemed shaken when they learned that the guard had been armed. According to a White House official, Obama was bothered by the fact that he wasn't told about the incident, not so much that it happened. 

That was the last straw for the president. Secret Service director Pierson resigned on Wednesday. 

***

In general, the Secret Service assigns an experienced agent to oversee the advance for every site the president visits during a trip. That “site agent” is often a senior member of the detail, or at least trusted by his or her colleagues to supervise the complex process of managing even a short visit from the most powerful man in the world. Site agents handle everything. They are responsible for everything. Details matter. If the Secret Service suffers from complacency, or if agents are not properly trained, the sites will fall apart. Errors, large and small, will cascade.

I spent a lot of time in 2012 on the ground and behind the scenes with site agents, including Tom Ford, a veteran of George W. Bush’s protective detail. Ford was in charge of securing the Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the day Obama was to accept his re-nomination as the Democratic standard-bearer in that fall’s presidential election. Eighty-five thousand people, including Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, their families, two foreign heads of state, half the cabinet, and virtually every important member of the national media would be on hand.

When I met Ford a few days before the event, it was 90 degrees and sultry. He was wearing a polo shirt and jeans. Though his brag sheet was replete with successfully secured big sites, this would be, by far, his biggest—the largest single site anyone had to secure for the entire 2012 campaign. Ford had been working 14-hour days since early July.

“Now I know what it feels like to be a single mother,” he joked to me. 

With barely a break between the conventions that year and the UN General Assembly, when field offices across the country are stretched so thin that some of them are staffed by only two agents at a time, Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney both began several weeks of multi-state, multi-day campaign swings. Even for Romney, that typically involved several hundred agent hours, dozens of rental cars, flights, and logistical hassles. Inevitably, because so many Secret Service assets are on the road, things got stolen. An unlucky band of thieves decided to grab a U-Haul van sitting in a parking lot in Detroit. Their prize: several magnetometers, not exactly a hot sell on the black market. The van was abandoned a day later.

Tired agents make mistakes, too. The agent assigned to the press corps covering Romney left her gun on the sink of the campaign bathroom. It was discovered by the bathroom’s next user, a CBS News and National Journal correspondent. Initially, the reporter didn’t want to tattle on the agent, whom she had gotten to know a bit. (Typically, the press agent bonds a bit with the media.) But other journalists on the plane overhead the reporter talking to her assignment desk, and within an hour the director of the Secret Service had been notified, an AP story appeared, and the agent was taken off the roadshow.

More seriously, and more secretly, the PPD received classified briefings almost daily on a foiled plot to assassinate the president: highly trained army infantrymen who had turned soured on the government and were financed by a $500,000 insurance settlement that one of them received for an injury. In all, eight members of the US military were implicated; some would later be charged with planning to assassinate the president and take over the government. The soldiers had weapons and ammunition. The Secret Service received intelligence that some of the soldiers were months away from attempting to storm an Obama event, possibly the inauguration.

***

The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig has done yeoman’s work revealing the extent to which the Secret Service has grown too complacent and how a number of agents are complaining directly to her and to Congress that they fear the vaunted guardian of American democracy has lost its sense of urgency. But the question of what should be done remains.

Ronald Kessler, the author of several books about the agency, believes that its managers are buffoons and too deferential to the people they cover. I think the Secret Service has a number of phantoms to confront, including a cadre of supervisors who might have been good agents but make very bad managers of human beings. Many of them will age out of the agency’s culture as its senior managers retire and a new generation of well-trained, well-compensated, and cosmopolitan agents take their place. In the near term, the Secret Service has to get its mojo—its internal confidence—back. Interim director Joseph Clancy will face pressure to institute massive changes.

“I think his first order of business should be to clean house on the eighth floor,” a veteran agent with detail-leader experience told me, referring to the location in its headquarters where Secret Service brass have their offices. “All of them should be told, 'If you’re eligible to retire, commence fishing.'"

Beyond that, though, the Secret Service has to confront the reality that it hasn’t always faced the facts well. Consider, for example, how the agency responded to a series of unfortunate events involving booze.

Half a dozen scandals since 2009 were alcohol-related, according to press reports. Elite agents got too drunk and behaved stupidly, so the Secret Service changed the rules. Those incidents continued, though, suggesting that lax rules and regulations weren’t at the root of the problem. Alcoholism among some elite agents is the root of a major obstacle.

Go back to Cartagena, Colombia, in March 2012: A few days before Obama was set to arrive, agents from the Special Operations Division's two elite teams—Counter Assault (CAT) and Counter Sniper (CS)—flew into town, joining technicians and officers from the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service's White House Security Branch and other agents from field offices all across the southern United States.

The CAT and CS team members were part of what the Service calls a ”jump team,” hopping ahead of the president to pre-secure certain high-risk events. The Service put these agents up at El Caribe, a restored colonial-style resort on the Boca Grande peninsula. Their weapons and tactical gear were stored, securely, at another hotel. Wednesday night, after a heavy bout of drinking in the hotel bar, a dozen agents and officers, as well as a number of soldiers assigned to the US Southern Command, decided to partake of the city's lower-order pleasures. They went to a bar. They got drunk. They took women back to the hotel with them. Some of the men were married; most weren't. Some of the women were locals employed gainfully. Others were ladies of the evening.

These incidents are not just embarrassing but potentially compromising. The women who had sex with the agents in their hotel rooms were complete unknowns. They could have rifled through the agents' belongings and clothes. A smart enemy of the United States could target agents using honeypots—seductive female spies. A tracking device, or worse, could be attached to the agents’ radios. It was a counterintelligence nightmare. A Department of Homeland Security investigation later concluded that the agents did not jeopardize operational security. They were lucky.

After Cartagena, the Secret Service revised its procedures. Alcohol infractions would be more harshly punished. A supervisor was added to foreign trips. Director Sullivan insisted that managers be retrained in basic human-capital policies. Agents took courses in ethics. They could no longer drink within ten hours of reporting for duty.

That didn't solve the problem, however.

In 2013, Pierson demoted a very well respected member of the PPD. He had left a bullet in the hotel room of a woman he was seeing; having consumed alcohol that night, he tried to go back into the room and, intoxicated, was stopped by the hotel’s security team.

When, in March of 2014, three members of a CAT team drank too much before a presidential trip to the Netherlands, with one passing out in the hallway, they were sent home and immediately disciplined.

About a week later, a PPD agent got drunk and crashed a car in the Florida Keys. Then Pierson made it a rule that agents on the CAT and CS teams could not drink alcohol within 24 hours of the president’s arrival on a foreign trip. A number of managers were re-assigned.

As part of its investigations into the Secret Service’s culture, the Department of Homeland Security asked Secret Service employees if they knew colleagues with drinking problems. Only 10 percent said yes.

That tells me that the Secret Service still does not believe it has a drinking problem. And whatever leadership failures or protocol malfunctions it may be dealing with in the wake of the elevator mishap, the agency clearly has a drinking problem.

All of this is to say that the Secret Service now has a chance to address some red flags that have been flying for years. Changing behavior, calling people out, ensuring accountability—all of this is hard, and it will be painful for agents who follow the rules and perform magnificently. Now that the wool has been pulled from their eyes, let’s hope it’s discarded forever.

Marc Ambinder is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. He is a former White House correspondent for National Journal, politics editor for the Atlantic, and chief political consultant to CBS News. He is working on a book about nuclear brinkmanship in the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter.