- - Thursday, March 12, 2015

The days of the Secret Service agent as superhero are long gone. Instead of men like Clint Hill flying into the back seat of the Kennedy motorcade to protect the first lady after the assassination in Dallas, or of the stoic agents of a later time who surrounded Ronald Reagan with their bodies and got him to safety after John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt, the men of today’s security detail appear to be rude, raucous, unfocused college frat boys.

In 2012, members of the elite team surrounding President Obama famously “partied like rock stars” on Martha’s Vineyard, and were later otherwise occupied when an intruder, perhaps a thrill-seeker, jumped a fence and made his way into the White House. No harm was done, except to the reputation of the Secret Service, but there could have been. Three days earlier, a man with a gun, that the Secret Service did not know, rode in an elevator with Mr. Obama during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Where were the sturdy men of yesteryear? Not where they should have been.

Last week it was party time again, with reports of drunken men of the security detail ramming a barrier to the White House grounds with an agency car. The incident is under investigation, as it should be, with all vigor and dispatch. This will take the measure of the Secret Service’s new director, Joseph P. Clancy, who arrived with the promise of cleaning up a mess and demanding performance. The two agents on the griddle are Mark Connolly, the second-in-command of Mr. Obama’s detail, and George Ogilvie, a senior supervisor in the Washington field office. Not exactly rookies on the first day on the job.

The good news is that something positive is afoot. Instead of the Secret Service investigating its own, there’s talk that this last caper could be referred to an independent entity within the Department of Homeland Security. This is the first good news about the Secret Service in a while.

The Secret Service Division was created on July 5, 1865 in Washington to suppress counterfeit currency. In 1867, these responsibilities were broadened to include “detecting persons perpetrating frauds against the government. This assignment included investigations into the Ku Klux Klan, nonconforming distillers, smugglers, mail robbers, land frauds, and a number of other infractions against the federal laws.” Over the years its responsibilities were broadened to include protecting presidents, their spouses, their children, candidates for president and the vice president. For a time, its headquarters was in New York City, but in 1874, Secret Service headquarters returned to Washington.

It was after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 that Congress requested presidential protection. In 1902, the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for protection of the president, and full-time Secret Service agents were assigned to the White House.

Since 2003, the Secret Service has made nearly 29,000 criminal arrests for counterfeiting, cyber investigations and other financial crimes, and seized more than $295 million in worthless counterfeit currency. The Secret Service investigated and closed financial crimes cases where actual loss amounted to $3.7 billion and prevented a potential loss of more than $12 billion.

This is good work and important work, but in these dangerous times, it pales measured against the protection of the president. We miss the unflappable sentries who talked into their sleeves, brooked no nonsense, and remained stiffly vigilant. There is no counterfeiting this level of watchfulness. Congress should punish whoever needs punishing, and should do it at once.


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