Proud, insular and stung by security lapses, the U.S. Secret Service needs new leadership from outside the agency to drive accountability, strategy and cultural change, according to an independent report released Thursday that laid bare the flaws of the agency that protects the president and his family.
“The need to change, reinvigorate, and question long-held assumptions — from within the agency itself — is too critical right now for the next director to be an insider,” the report from a panel of four outsiders urged Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
“Only a director from outside the Service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require,” the report added. Most of the report’s findings are classified, but the agency released a publicly available executive summary from the panel, which included former top Justice Department official Thomas Pererelli and former George W. Bush White House aide Joe Hagin.
The report also made numerous other recommendations, including building a stronger perimeter fence around the White House to give Secret Service officers “more time to react to intrusions,” changing training, hiring more agents and officers and adding a greater “culture of accountability” inside the agency.
“Agency leadership, managers, and front line supervisors must believe and show that they are accountable for their mission. These are not just morale issues, or issues of fairness or trust. Accountability creates the culture of performance that the Secret Service needs to meet its zero-failure mission,” the report explained.
The report was ordered after a series of security lapses, including a scandal in Colombia involving prostitutes and a September breach in which a knife-wielding man hopped the White House fence and got deep inside the executive mansion before he was stopped.
Mr. Johnson called the panel’s findings “thorough, astute and fair” but cautioned that some of the changes would take time and involved forces outside the service itself.
“The Secret Service cannot, by itself, make many of the fundamental changes recommended by the panel. They also require engaged, sustained oversight by me and other leaders of this Department, to enforce change and ensure that the Secret Service has and utilizes what it needs to get the job done,” he said.
The Homeland Security secretary pointedly noted that some of the panel’s recommended fixes “are similar to others made in past agency reviews, many of which were never implemented.”
“This time must be different,” he said.
The panel named the fortification of the White House fence as a top priority but did not specify a specific structure. Instead, it suggested some of the features, such as building the fence at least 4 or 5 feet higher and eliminating horizontal bars “where climbers can easily place hands and feet.” The top of the fence should be altered to make it nearly impossible for most to climb over, it said.
Still, the panel said in the report that the Secret Service’s problems run much deeper than a fence.
“The panel found an organization starved for leadership that reward innovation and excellence and demands accountability. From agents to officers to supervisors, we heard a common desire: More resources would help, but what we really need is leadership,” the report said.
Although the report does not make clear where the new leader will be selected, one observer suggested Thursday night that a former FBI official would be best suited for the job.
“The FBI has had a great track record since 9/11 of keeping us safe. There have been no successful foreign terrorist attacks. The culture of the FBI doesn’t tolerate cover-ups and excuses, which is not the way the Secret Service operates,” said Ronald Kessler, author of 20 nonfiction books on the Secret Service, FBI and CIA.
“FBI changed it’s culture after 9/11 to become more prevention-oriented,” Mr. Kessler said “The people in charge of that are the ones I think should be put in charge of the Secret Service. That way you have someone who is a former federal law enforcement official, so there’s not as much of a learning curve.”
Mr. Kessler told The Times that the panel’s report accurately highlights a culture of laziness and arrogance within the Secret Service.
“They mention the insularity of the Secret Service. That’s a really important criticism, They think they know everything. They are very arrogant, and that’s why they didn’t lock the door of the White House,” Mr. Kessler said.
According to the report, another major problem within the agency is a lack of resources — both physical and financial.
“The Secret Service is stretched to, and in many cases, beyond its limits. Perhaps the Service’s greatest strength — the commitment of its personnel to sacrifice and do the job ‘no matter what’ — has had unintended consequences,” the panel noted.
Special agents and Uniformed Division officers work an unsustainable amount of hours and are prevented from receiving sufficient training because of understaffing.
The report noted that special agents received 42 hours of training on average during fiscal year 2013, and the 1,300-member Uniformed Division received just 576 hours of training, roughly 25 minutes for each member.
The panel recommended that Congress and the executive branch work together to secure an additional 85 special agents and 200 Uniformed Division officers “as quickly as can be appropriately managed.”
Concerns about the state of the Secret Service came to a boil in September, when an intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was able to make it deep into the White House with a knife, because of a mix of organizational and technological failures.
Subsequently, it was revealed that the Secret Service botched its response in 2011 to a shooting near the White House, involving a gunman who had parked his car 700 yards south of the residence and fired out the passenger window toward the house.
The Secret Service also came under fire this fall when President Obama was accompanied in an elevator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by a convicted felon carrying a firearm that wasn’t detected by the Secret Service agents protecting the president.