The Secret Service: A Crisis in Leadership and Mission

Posted on December 8, 2014
by Dan Emmett

In 2011 when I began writing the initial manuscript for Within Arm’s Length the United States Secret Service still possessed its clandestine nature, and was—to many—the most highly respected agency of the United States government.


Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, at right, serves on the protection detail as former President Bill Clinton greets the crowd at a public event. Image is in the public domain via Gainsville Times.

Since its origins in 1865, the Secret Service had largely avoided the usual scandals and missteps made by most other governmental organizations. Unlike the FBI or CIA, for example, it had never produced a traitor within its ranks, a director who ordered his agents to spy on Americans, or had been guilty of poor public conduct. As much as the agencies within the intelligence community the Secret Service, a law enforcement agency living in the shadows, avoided publicity of any kind. America trusted the United States Secret Service.

Up until 2003, when it was then relocated to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service existed under the control of the Department of the Treasury. There, in very small numbers, agents of the Secret Service operated efficiently and effectively carrying out their primary roles of counterfeit suppression, and beginning in 1902 protecting the President of the United States.

As with most small agencies with few job vacancies, the Secret Service had the luxury of carefully selecting its new personnel. Being few in numbers also meant fewer supervisors that were also selected under the same scrutiny.

Over the years, as the Secret Service took on more and more responsibilities both in its investigative and protective missions, its numbers continued to grow.  Still, this growth was slow and measured with its agents, and remained relatively few in number and carefully selected.

Given their undeniable success throughout the decades—boasting a leaner acceptance rate than that of the Ivy League system—it seemed that these men and women behind dark glasses and hard expressions were in some way the best of the best. Then came 2012, which unfolded with the Cartagena incident: a display of blatant, open misconduct with prostitutes.

Cartagena was followed by other blunders involving both personal conduct of its agents as well as operational failures, such as with Omar Gonzales—a demented Iraqi war veteran who forced his way past numerous Secret Service uniformed division officers, and practically conducted a self-guided tour of the White House before being apprehended. Add to that the incident of a man (who the Secret Service failed to name-check for criminal history) entering an elevator with POTUS while armed with a pistol. Meanwhile, the old heads like myself were left wondering alongside the rest of America, “what has happened to our Secret Service?”

As a retired Secret Service agent with 21 years of duty under three different presidents and two tours on the Presidential Protective Division (PPD), the most frequently asked questions of me by the average American were: “would you have taken a bullet for the president?” or “what was Hillary like?”  Though predictable and sometimes tiring, I now long for those days. The new questions most frequently asked have nothing to do with career or mission, but rather the continuing Secret Service calamities. And, unlike the questions of old, these have no simple answers. Yet, there are two major issues that cover many of the problems now confronting the Secret Service: mission creep (taking on too much mission responsibility), and most importantly, an agency-wide failure in leadership.

Much of this is an unintended consequence of 9/11, which resulted in the hiring for hundreds of new agents in a very short amount of time. After the attack, the Secret Service was ordered to increase its agent population by several hundred in the shortest amount of time possible, which ultimately sacrificed its rigorous standards. Those applicants who would have been typically surpassed in ordinary times began assuming the ranks. Today, many of these sub-standard hires have risen to supervisory roles and are contributing to the growing deficit in quality Secret Service leadership.

The current state of affairs the agency now finds itself in did not occur overnight, nor will the remedy, but it is a journey that must begin.

First, the Secret Service must reduce its overall scope of responsibility—it has become stretched too thin while encompassing investigations in addition to protection. Few realize, for example, that the Secret Service currently protects over 25 people on a full-time basis—not just the President and Vice President of the United States.  This number is by far in excess from that which can effectively be handled given the number of available agents.

Next, while the appointment of Joe Clancy as Director following the dismissal of Director Julia Pierson was a step in the right direction, it is not a permanent selection, but rather a stopgap put in place to maintain an even keel until a new Director can be appointed.  Real change can only occur when and if a new Director is employed with no political ties to Washington or the President.  They should have experience as a former military officer, and possess a strong leadership background with thorough comprehension of the security business.

In conclusion, with hard work on the part of the Secret Service, the old questions once asked most frequently of current and former agents will have nothing to do with operational failures or personal conduct issues, but once again will be: “would you take a bullet for the president?”

DAN EMMETT is a former Marine Corps officer and United States Secret Service veteran. He served on the elite Counter Assault Team before being selected for the most coveted of all assignments in the Secret Service, the Presidential Protective Division. After 21 years as an agent, Emmett retired from the Secret Service and joined the CIA for six more years. Today, the author is an adjunct professor as well as a security consultant for both private industry and the United States Government. His latest book is Within Arm’s Length.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,