WASHINGTON – A special committee formed to analyze ongoing problems within the U.S. Secret Service concluded that the agency is stretched too thin and should consider dropping some of its responsibilities to focus on its primary duty – protecting the president.
Members of the United States Secret Service Protection Mission Panel told members of the House Oversight & Government Affairs Committee that the agency needs more money and agents to effectively meet its obligations. And they said serious consideration must be given to replacing the fence surrounding the White House to provide greater security.
Essentially, the panel reported the Secret Service carries too many responsibilities.
“The president and other protectees cannot receive the best possible protection when agents and officers are deployed for longer and longer hours with fewer and fewer days off,” panel members said in a prepared statement. “For years, the service has taken on additional missions — in both its protective and investigative roles — but has not matched its request for additional resources to those expanded missions.”
Training is a problem because of a lack of personnel and funding. Secret Service uniformed officers spent an average of just 25 minutes in training in fiscal 2013. Many other law enforcement agencies spent as much as one-quarter of their time training.
Panel members maintain the next Secret Service director – the position has been vacant since former chief Julia Pierson resigned in October — should give serious consideration “to whether there are collateral or non-essential missions that can be shed, though we believe the service’s investigative mission provides benefits to its protective mission.”
Should the Secret Service cut back on investigative functions?
For instance, the original mandate of the Secret Service, formed in 1965, was to investigate the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. The mission remains today. In addition, since 1984, the agency has been investigating crimes that involve financial institution fraud, computer and telecommunications fraud, false identification documents, access device fraud, advance fee fraud, electronic funds transfers and money laundering.
“Protecting the financial system of the United States is a massive endeavor if there aren’t bounds and limits put on it,” said panel member Mark Filip, a former deputy attorney general now in private practice. “There has to be a very good-faith look at whether or not investigative functions enhance the ability to protect.”
Secret Service would benefit from better training and less insular culture
Regardless, even if the agency sheds some responsibilities, it needs more personnel and better training “to ensure adequate resources are available to protection.” The service should start by hiring 200 new uniformed officers and 85 special agents — a 4.5 percent increase in the overall workforce that currently employs about 6,300.
Panel members also recommended that the next director come from outside the agency, noting only someone “removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment” necessary to right the ship.
“The panel heard one common critique from those inside and outside the service — the service is too insular,” they said. “The Secret Service is justifiably proud of its preeminence and its history. But the Secret Service could benefit greatly from reaching outside itself to other entities, here and abroad, that share a similar mission or have knowledge and skills that would be valuable to the Secret Service.”
The panel was formed in wake of several incidents that raised questions about the effectiveness of the Secret Service in carrying out its security obligations, strongly indicating that the agency had lost direction.
Last Sept. 19 an individual carrying a half-inch serrated knife leapt over the White House fence, onto the North Lawn and ultimately into the building itself.
That was not a singular incident. In 2011, a man fired a high-powered rifle at the White House while one of President Obama’s daughters was in the residence. The Secret Service proved unable to confirm that shots had been fired at the White House until a housekeeper found broken glass four days later.
Also in September, an armed security contractor entered an elevator with the president in violation of protocol. And more recently a drone crashed into a tree on the White House lawn.
How much does it cost to protect the president?
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman, said he was alarmed to discover that no one inside the Secret Service has ever determined how much it costs to protect the president.
“In fact, the panel found ‘no one has really looked at how much the mission, done right, actually costs,” Chaffetz said. “This is simply unacceptable. Combined with other limitations like insufficient training, antiquated technology and an insular attitude – these factors have all contributed to recent security breaches. The fact that the panel made these findings is not surprising.”
The panel also strongly recommended that the fence around the White House be changed “as soon as possible” to provide better protection.
“We recognize all of the competing considerations that may go into questions regarding the fence, but believe that protection of the president and the White House must be the higher priority,” they said.
Time to replace the fence around the White House
A better fence, according to the panel, “can provide time — and time is crucial to the protective mission.”
“Every additional second of response time provided by a fence that is more difficult to climb makes a material difference in ensuring the president’s safety and protecting the symbol that is the White House,” they said. “Additionally, the ease with which ‘pranksters’ and the mentally ill can climb the current fence puts Secret Service personnel in a precarious position: When someone jumps the fence, they must decide, in a split-second, whether to use lethal force on a person who may not actually pose a viable threat to the president or the White House.”
It will be difficult for the Secret Service to implement recommended changes
Panel members told the committee that they recognize that many of the recommendations will prove difficult to implement.
“Many will cost money, which is always a challenge in Washington, D.C.,” they said. “We are mindful of the current budget climate and the value of taxpayer dollars, and we would not recommend spending a penny unwisely. Many others will require strong leadership and a will to change, which can be difficult for an organization with such a storied history.”
“Some in the Secret Service will resist and may need to move on. But the Secret Service cannot lose focus on its core and essential mission – the protection of the current, past and future presidents of the United States. As a nation, we should not fail to make prudent investments in personnel, technology and leadership when the stakes are so high.”