The recent scandals and security lapses regarding the Secret Service are more than troubling. That the latest bungling occurred after the appointment of Joseph P. Clancy as director indicates that a deeper restructuring of its culture and management is required. More is needed than just appointing a new chief.
The Secret Service isn’t just another government agency; it’s something of a legend, tasked with protecting an individual, who is not only the president of the United States, but also the leader of the free world. The agency has a difficult challenge because it has two missions that are diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, it has to make the president accessible to the public — it can’t seclude the leader of the free world in a fortress or in some inaccessible compound as done for Kim Jung Il or Bashir Assad. But on the other, it has to provide the same kind of impenetrable protection that is given to despots cowering behind thick walls.
For more than a century the Secret Service had lived up to that challenge. The Service had earned its legendary status by the willingness of its agents to place their own lives in the line of fire to protect the president. There’s the indelible image of Secret Service agent Clint Hill jumping out of a car and leaping onto the bumper of the limousine carrying President Kennedy and the first lady on that fateful day, November 22, 1963, in Dallas. Although Hill’s actions were too late to save the president, his bravery became another emblem of the willingness of Secret Service agents to lay their lives on the line in order to protect the president. Hill regretted that he hadn’t acted a second sooner and placed his body in front of the third bullet fired by Oswald, which proved to be the shot that took Kennedy’s life.
That tradition of sacrifice was continued during the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. As John Hinckley, Jr., started pumping shots in the direction of the president, Secret Service agents moved quickly to protect the president with their own bodies; Agent Timothy McCarthy took a bullet to his abdomen. If not for the valor and bravery of the president’s Secret Service detail, it’s highly likely that the president would not have survived the assassination attempt. That’s the kind of sacrifice Americans had come to associate with the Secret Service.
Unfortunately, that legacy has been tarnished lately. The latest scandal, in which two allegedly intoxicated senior Secret Service agents rammed into a barrier while investigating a possible security breach, represents not only a dereliction of duty on the part of the agents, but is another sign that a systemically mismanaged organization is not up to the task of fulfilling its mission.
Regarding this latest episode, Clancy testified before Congress that he had no idea about the incident until several days after it occurred. He also testified that the tape of the agents hitting the barrier may have been erased since sometimes security tapes are reused after 72 hours. While there’s no evidence of anyone tampering with the video, it’s inexplicable how a surveillance tape of what should arguably be the most secure building in the world is overwritten more quickly than neighborhood bodegas overwrite theirs. Clancy should have known about the incident immediately, and as someone with 27 years of experience with the Secret Service, he should have been aware of the inexplicably short duration of the surveillance tape and understood that it was something that required immediate remediation.
Clancy seemed equally clueless regarding the more serious breach of security in which Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and ran for a while, unchecked, through the executive mansion on Sept. 9. The details of that story kept changing. First we were told that Gonzalez didn’t make it past the front door; then it emerged that he had actually penetrated deeply into the White House. Another later revelation was that he was carrying a knife and had previously been arrested in July after Virginia State Police found a cache of weapons and a map of the White House in his car. Clancy testified that no one at the Secret Service willfully lied about the episode, but he was at a loss to explain why the account of what had occurred kept changing.
It becomes clearer that Clancy, as a long-time Secret Service insider, cannot take a fresh approach and become a thought-leader into how to systemically dismantle the current lackadaisical and slipshod approach to the president’s security. Only an outsider who didn’t have a career path so tightly linked with the organization can restore the devotion and heroism that was so much a part of the DNA of the Secret Service.