The US Secret Service needs to be rehabilitated. Just as with people most needing rehab, the first step is for the USSS to openly acknowledge it really does need it. Failing to follow that with appropriate action rather than empty words will result in repeated starts followed by repeated failures.
In fairness to the agency and its employees, the need for rehab has been evident to many people for years. It may now have reached the point that to be successful, if it can be, the rehab must be once again involuntarily imposed as it was with what the Warren Commission and its classified subcommittees did after President Kennedy was killed. We hope it won’t take the burial of another assassinated President or some extremely damaging and enduring national security breach to stimulate Congress and the Executive Branch, but the indicators are that the Secret Service continues its cultural resistance to needed institutional change.
The Secret Service has a dual mission: investigate violations of specified federal laws and protect certain persons, most notably the President. It’s powers, authorities, and duties are enumerated in 18 USC §3056 and 18 USC §3056A.
Both the investigative and protective duties and responsibilities have expanded greatly in the past 30 years. The Secret Service website gives an overview of the operational duties. What the website alludes to but does not make clear is that the volume and the complexity of the work have increased and likely will continue to increase.
The argument is often made that the protective mission should be a dedicated one that does not compete with criminal investigations for the same manpower. An equally strong argument that has prevailed so far is that protection burns people out very quickly. Several studies over the years tend to validate the latter argument. When someone burns out on protection, the investigative option allows their rotation back to a field office or to a headquarters office.
Emotional and mental burnout on protection often manifest as complacency, confused reactions, and unwillingness to act and react definitively.
Which leads us to the present state of disrepair.
OpenCdA has some strong opinions about what corrective measures need to be taken at the beginning of the rehab process.
1. Remove the USSS from the Department of Homeland Security and put it back under the Treasury Department where it had been from 1865 until 2003. President George W. Bush did federal law enforcement professionals and those they serve a real disservice when he consolidated 22 federal law enforcement agencies under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 . Each of that Department’s Secretaries (Ridge, Chertoff, Napolitano, and Johnson) have distinguished themselves with their collective inabilities and lack of leadership and political skill to make that consolidation work. To many it never appeared to be a workable idea.
2. If the USSS’s investigative mission is to remain unchanged while at the same time improving the consistency and quality of protection, then 18 USC § 3056 must be amended to substantially reduce the USSS’s protective duties. The US Secret Service is critically overextended. Here are the changes with which we would start:
- Retain the duties prescribed in 18 USC §3056(a)(1), (2), and (5)
- Remove the duties prescribed in 18 USC §3056(a)(3), (4), (6), and (8)
- Modify the duties prescribed in 18 USC §3056(7) to retain only the Presidential nominees whose names will appear on the general election ballot for the office of President. Protect only the nominees; not candidates.
- Remove the duties prescribed in 18 USC §3056(e)(1). The coordination of National Special Security Events does not require the specialized knowledge unique to the protection of others required by 18 USC §3056. Many of these Presidential- or Homeland Security Secretary-declared NSSEs are private for-profit enterprises (e.g. some Super Bowl football games) that should be funded and staffed by those for-profit enterprises, not the US taxpayers.
Under our proposed changes, we do not argue that those who might “lose” USSS protection should go unprotected. However, what we do argue is that if protection is necessary and appropriate, it can be provided to them by others. Those levels of protection need to be based on realistic threat and vulnerability assessments of the damage that would be done to national security if the person protected were killed or kidnapped.
In 18 USC §3056(a) Congress mandated that only “The President, the Vice President (or other officer next in the order of succession to the Office of President), the President-elect, and the Vice President-elect” are required to have Secret Service protection. With the inclusion of the declination wording “The protection authorized in paragraphs (2) through (8) may be declined,” Congress recognized that all other dignitary protection by the Secret Service is subordinate to that required by 18 USC §3056(a)(1). (By the way, shortly after resigning from office, former President Nixon “signed off” and declined USSS protection. Those “formers” still getting USSS protection should consider doing the same.)
3. As we pointed out in our post titled Maybe This Time … and dated October 2, 2014, “U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, announced that he intends to introduce legislation to appoint a blue-ribbon commission or a panel of experts (depending on which press release the reader believes) to conduct a top-to-bottom examination of the US Secret Service.”
We agree that a review is necessary, but we also believe that under no circumstances should that review be conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security Secretary Jae Johnson and his predecessors bear some responsibility for many of the faults and failures that have occurred in the USSS. That failures and weaknesses have been allowed to occur in other Department of Homeland Security agencies reinforces the need for the review to critically ask and equally critically answer an obvious question: To what extent were the most recent failures in the Secret Service in part attributable to the lack of leadership and oversight by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security?
This article from the October 3, 2014, Los Angeles Times is typical in its very shallow generalization of the operational scope of Presidential protection. These types of articles influence the public’s perception of the USSS protective mission.
While the specifics of what Presidential protection involves should never be revealed to the public, those specifics do need to be adequately understood by whatever blue ribbon commission or committee (with properly cleared members and staff) reviews the recent failures of the US Secret Service. The breadth of knowledge, skills, abilities, innovative imagination, and professional commitment required of every US Secret Service employee to perform his and her assigned duties has rarely if ever been fully revealed — nor should it be. Indeed, even the revelation of some specific duties would seriously compromise their effectiveness. Such revelation of methods would recklessly expose the capabilities and thereby the limitations of the USSS. That is why some of the sections of the 1964 Warren Commission report still remain highly classified.
While agreeing that the proposed review is necessary and asserting that it must also include a review of the Department of Homeland Security, we also assert that it must objectively and critically review the interaction with and influence on Presidential protection from others who are involved in the day-to-day scheduling, travel, and living arrangements for those receiving USSS protection. Broadly, those “others” include the White House senior and advance staff, the US military, and other federal government agencies. The Secret Service has the authority to overrule the wishes and actions of those “others” if it is necessary to protect the President, the Vice President (or other officer next in the order of succession to the Office of the President), the President-elect, and the Vice President-elect. That authority has been fully exercised sparingly and judiciously.
The most challenging question for whomever reviews the USSS is not whether the USSS has sufficient authority to carry out its duties as prescribed in 18 USC §3056(a)(1). The question is does the USSS Director and every member of the organization still have the courage to exercise that authority when necessary. We’re not talking about “willing to take a bullet” courage; we’re talking about the political courage to do they job they were appointed or hired to do and risk being fired if they do it. That has to start at the top of the organization and be reinforced throughout.