After yet another scandal, what can be done to fix the Secret Service?
High-profile scandals have diminished the Secret Service's reputation in recent years. But two reports offer insight into how to ensure the agency is providing adequate protection.
A former US Secret Service agent was sentenced to six years in prison Monday for stealing electronic currency while investigating an online black market.
After gaining access to Silk Road as part of an investigative task force, Shaun Bridges stole over $800,000 in Bitcoin and attempted to pin the theft on a cooperating witness, ultimately threatening the witness’ life. Mr. Bridges admitted to money laundering and obstruction charges during trial in August.
"This, to me, is an extremely serious crime consisting of the betrayal of public trust by a federal law enforcement agent," the judge, who passed the sentence Monday, told the Associated Press.
This is just one smudge in a series of scandals overshadowing the Secret Service (USSS) in recent years. In 2012, a prostitution scandal in Colombia widely covered by the media diminished the Service’s reputation. And a report released last week by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform exposed more than 143 security breaches at agency-supervised facilities.
Notable breaches detailed in the report included:
a November 11, 2011, incident where an individual fired several shots at the White House from a semiautomatic rifle;
a September 16, 2014, incident at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, where an armed contract security guard with a violent arrest history rode in an elevator with President Obama and later breached the President’s security formation;
and a March 4, 2015, incident where two intoxicated senior USSS officials— including a top official on the President’s protective detail—interfered with a crime scene involving a bomb threat just outside the White House grounds.”
Those investigating the agency point to several factors that have led to reduced effectiveness. “Poor leadership and a dysfunctional workplace have created a culture within the Secret Service that led to major security lapses, employee misconduct and low employee satisfaction and commitment scores,” the Partnership for Public Service said. Furthermore, resource reductions and “unprecedented staffing shortages” have added to agency pressures.
Deemed an “agency in crisis,” the Service has had three different directors in the past two years, and staff has dropped by more than 50 people, marking the lowest numbers in a decade despite recommendations to increase hiring.
The House Committee’s report also highlighted “significant cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, systemic mismanagement at USSS that has been unable to correct these shortfalls, and declining employee morale leading to attrition.”
A separate report on USSS was completed in December 2014 by the US Secret Service Protective Mission Panel, a panel formed in response to the Sept. 19, 2014 incident, “when a lone individual leapt over the White House fence, onto the North Lawn, and ultimately into the White House itself.”
This report, too, found several issues needing immediate attention including a training regimen “diminished far below acceptable levels,” a lack of resources, limitations on personnel and “an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability.”
However, this report offered suggestions for change, while still acknowledging the work of the agency. “Facing constant threats and charged with guarding the world's most powerful and visible head of state and the most accessible executive mansion of any large nation, the Secret Service has an extraordinary track record of success,” wrote the panel members in the report’s executive summary. “This is not to say that the Secret Service does not make mistakes. But we owe the agents, officers, and line personnel of the Secret Service a debt of gratitude.”
With multiple reports, USSS has many recommendations to restore their tarnished reputation. This is an important time for the Secret Service, as they are providing protection not only for the president, but a handful of 2016 presidential candidates as well.
Fixing USSS could mean bringing in a new leader from the outside, suggests the USSS Protective Mission Panel. Increasing the agency's budget, hiring additional employees, and increasing staff training would allow the agency to better protect the nation.
“We know special agents of the United States Secret Service as the silent figures around the President, but we tend to notice them only in the extraordinarily rare moments when they fail,” wrote the USSS Protective Mission Panel.
“As a nation, we should not fail to make prudent investments in personnel, technology, and leadership when the stakes are so high.”