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KESSLER: Reeling in a reckless Secret Service
Full accountability for president’s safety is long overdue
Question of the Day
Not only does the head of the U.S. Marshals Service require Senate confirmation, but also 94 marshal positions in each judicial district. Besides the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the director of the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime requires confirmation. So does the librarian of the Library of Congress, as does the deputy director for demand reduction of the so-called “drug czar.”
Yet along with the FBI, whose director also requires confirmation, the Secret Service is the paramount agency for protecting our democracy. That’s because, by definition, an assassination nullifies democracy. Given the powers of the Secret Service, moreover, the potential for engaging in abuses is almost as great as the FBI‘s.
Courts have given the Secret Service broad discretion in immediately detaining potential threats. In the course of protecting presidents, vice presidents and presidential candidates and their families, agents learn secrets that could be misused by the director, just as former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used damaging information about presidents and members of Congress uncovered in investigations as blackmail material.
Aside from their protective duties, Secret Service agents investigate a range of financial crimes, giving them wide access to confidential personal information. Any such investigation carries with it potential for abuse.
Despite its importance, Congress has never given the Secret Service much thought, and the agency evolved in haphazard fashion. As his last official act, President Lincoln signed the legislation creating the Secret Service, but it was only to investigate counterfeiting.
In 1894, the Secret Service was looking into a plot to assassinate President Grover Cleveland by a group of “western gamblers, anarchists or cranks” in Colorado. Exceeding its mandate, the agency detailed two men who had been conducting the investigation to protect Cleveland from the suspects. As threatening letters addressed to the president increased, the Secret Service began to supplement that protection by providing agents on an informal basis, including when the president traveled.
That did not help the next president, William S. McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. Still, it was not until the next year that the Secret Service officially assumed responsibility for protecting the president. Even then, it lacked statutory authority to do so. While Congress began allocating funds expressly for the purpose in 1906, it did so annually as part of the Sundry Civil Expenses Act.
Today, when it comes to congressional oversight, the Secret Service continues to be an afterthought. Under Mr. Sullivan, the Secret Service has lurched from one scandal to another. First, Secret Service Uniformed Division officers ignored the fact that Tareq and Michaele Salahi and Carlos Allen were not on the guest list for a White House state dinner and waved them in. Then agents assigned to protect President Obama hired prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, leaving themselves open to potential blackmail.
These failings go directly back to a lax management attitude. For example, when pressured, Secret Service managers instruct agents to let people into events without requiring that they pass through magnetometers or metal detectors. When an event is about to start, and people are still waiting to enter, annoyed campaign staffers and aides to both Presidents Bush and Obama have routinely told the Secret Service to stop screening people and just let them in. On instructions by management, agents comply.
Secret Service management has not insisted that agents pass firearms-requalification and physical-fitness tests. The Secret Service covers that up by routinely asking agents to fill out their own test scores. The Secret Service has cut back on the size of counterassault teams and bows to demands of staff that the teams remain at a distance.
Despite the scandals and dozens of examples of procedural lapses, Congress conducted pro forma hearings that mainly featured Mr. Sullivan’s testimony and never probed the real problems. After each scandal, Mr. Obama has expressed confidence in the agency under Mr. Sullivan.
Given the obvious problems and what is at stake, that attitude is just as reckless as John F. Kennedy’s refusal to let agents ride on the rear running board of his limousine in Dallas. If they had been on board, they would have pounced on him after the first shot — which was not fatal — and saved his life.
That is why congressional confirmation of the Secret Service director to foster accountability is long overdue.
Ronald Kessler is author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect” (Broadway, 2010).
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