Secret Service problems much bigger than prostitutes
So far, the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service involves agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia. But the media have largely ignored a much bigger scandal at the agency: a lax management culture that condones cutting corners, directly endangering the life of the president.
A prime example, revealed in my book on life inside the agency, is that when pressured, Secret Service managers tell agents to let people into events without requiring that they pass through magnetometers or metal detectors. When an event is about to start and people are still waiting to enter, annoyed campaign staffers and both Bush and Obama White House staffers have routinely told the Secret Service to stop screening people and let them in. Backed by senior Secret Service management, agents comply.
It gets worse. When Vice President Biden threw out the first pitch April 6, 2009, at the Baltimore Orioles’ season opener, the Secret Service had not screened with magnetometers any of the more than 40,000 fans at Camden Yards. Biden’s attendance was announced beforehand, yet the vice president was not wearing a bulletproof vest under his navy polo shirt as he stood on the pitcher’s mound.
“A gunman or gunmen, from anywhere in the stands, could have gotten off multiple rounds before we could have gotten in the line of fire,” a current agent, outraged that the Secret Service would be so reckless, told me.
The Secret Service suspends screening at one in five major presidential and vice presidential events, according to another current agent. Think about that: A terrorist could bring in a grenade and take out President Obama or Biden.
Other examples of corner-cutting include management not insisting that agents pass firearms requalification and physical fitness tests. The agency covers that up by routinely asking agents to fill out their own test scores.
One agent on the president’s detail regularly fails handgun tests but has not been removed, agents with firsthand knowledge have told me. Another agent on the detail is so out of shape that she cannot open the heavy doors to exit the president’s limousine, I’m told.
Instead of removing her from the president’s detail and requiring her to pass the fitness tests that all agents are supposed to take every three months, Secret Service management has told drivers to try to park so it would be easier for her to swing open the vehicle door.
Equally shocking, the Secret Service is not equipped with the most powerful firearms, such as the Colt M4 carbine used by the FBI and even Amtrak police.
The lax management culture filters down to agents at every level. When Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary was under protection, she insisted that her agents take her friends to restaurants. They rightly refused. But she threw a fit and got her detail leader removed over the incident. Asked for comment for my book, she told me: “These stories are simply not true, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women of the Secret Service.”
Management’s decision to undercut its agent, which I confirmed with several sources, sends a message to Secret Service Uniformed Division officers at the White House gates: If they turn away fashionably dressed people such as Tareq and Michaele Salahi or Carlos Allen because they are not on the guest list for a state dinner, and it turns out they should have been on the list, the officers could be in trouble because their own managers may not back them.
Similarly, the lax management culture tells agents that it’s fine to hire prostitutes when traveling abroad, even though that puts them at risk of blackmail by a terrorist or foreign intelligence service.
Since I broke the Colombia story in The Post, many have asked me if it surprised me. It doesn’t. While Secret Service agents overall are dedicated and will take a bullet for the president, they have been let down by their management.
Despite the scandals and the dozens of examples of corner cutting, President Obama has repeatedly expressed confidence in the agency under Director Mark Sullivan. That is as reckless as President John F. Kennedy’s refusal to let agents ride on the rear running board of his limousine in Dallas. If agents had been there, they would have jumped on Kennedy after the first shot — which was not fatal — and saved his life.
When Obama took office, threats against the president were up 400 percent from when George W. Bush was in office. They have since returned to about 3,000 a year, roughly the number as when Bush was president.
The Secret Service has been derelict in its duty to the American people and its own brave agents. It should not take another tragedy to bring about reform.
Ronald Kessler is the author of "In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect" and a former reporter for The Washington Post.
Books That Explode Presidential Myths
No executive privilege here: These books memorably explode presidential myths, says Ronald Kessler
Wall Street Journal
January 9, 2010
1. The Twilight of the Presidency
By George E. Reedy
Disillusioned by President Lyndon Johnson's arrogance, George E. Reedy, LBJ's former press secretary, brilliantly analyzes in "The Twilight of the Presidency" how presidents become consumed by the office. "The atmosphere of the White House is a heady one," Reedy warns. "By the 20th century, the presidency had taken on all the regalia of monarchy except robes, a scepter, and a crown." Obsequious aides and members of Congress are afraid to challenge the president directly. When the aides leave the White House and get their nerve back, Reedy says, they often denounce the president. The commander in chief soon comes to mistrust all around him. "No nation of free men should ever permit itself to be governed from a hallowed shrine where the meanest lust for power can be sanctified and the dullest wit greeted with reverential awe."
2. JFK: Reckless Youth
By Nigel Hamilton
Random House, 1992
In "Reckless Youth," Nigel Hamilton peels back myths about President John F. Kennedy, revealing his insatiable sexual appetite, his affair with pro-Nazi beauty Inga Arvad, and the importance of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, in financing and orchestrating his campaigns. "We're going to sell Jack like snow flakes," the former ambassador said before his son first ran for Congress. Later Joe lamented that "with the money I spent"—$250,000 according to Hamilton—"I could have elected my chauffeur."
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 1992
Just as they did with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the sages of the news media made great sport of portraying Harry Truman as a dunce. Reagan and Bush have their own defenders; David McCullough sticks up for Truman. This biography of the 33rd president concludes that Truman was an exceptionally wise leader, one who "stands forth now—especially now in the aftermath of the Cold War—as a figure of utmost importance." Truman's greatness as president is defined by his unshakable focus on national security, but his character—as delineated by McCullough—is most impressive. "Ambitious by nature," McCullough writes, "he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear." If today's presidential candidates were judged against that yardstick, we would all be blessed.
4. The Warren Commission Report
Only about one in 10 Americans believes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. That is largely due to conspiracy theorists, like movie director Oliver Stone, who have so confused the issue that most Americans say we will never know the truth about the terrible events in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The widespread doubts amount to another sort of "presidential myth," and it is a tragic one. Over the years, experts have attempted to allay suspicions about JFK's assassination, but there is still no better answer to skeptics than the 888-page report of the Warren Commission. Based on the FBI's meticulous investigation, the report presents compelling evidence that Oswald did indeed act alone. Like the 9/11 Commission, the Warren Commission presented a richly detailed account as spellbinding as the best mystery novels. As the investigation found, Kennedy might have been spared if he had simply heeded warnings about possible violence in Dallas. The president told the Secret Service that he did not want agents standing on the small running boards at the rear of his limousine. If agents had been on the rear running boards, they almost certainly would have jumped on Kennedy after the first shot—which was not fatal—and probably would have saved his life.
5. All the President's Men
By Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Simon & Schuster, 1974
As with any cataclysmic event, revisionists and conspiracy theorists have played down and even denied President Richard Nixon's complicity in the Watergate cover-up, as well as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's role in helping to reveal what went on. This is an emerging myth that needs rebutting. Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men" does an excellent job of it. I sat next to Bernstein at the Washington Post during Watergate. Almost every evening I heard his arguments with Woodward while they compared sources and hashed out their stories for each day's paper. I witnessed the best in investigative journalism. Their book tells a gripping, honest story of two reporters who helped unravel an epic abuse of power. In doing so, the book provides a cautionary tale about how easily an administration can conceal abuses from the press and the public.
Mr. Kessler is the author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect."
Celebrating the FBI
The Washington Post
July 27, 2008
When it created the FBI 100 years ago today, Congress worried that the new agency would become a secret police force, trampling on civil rights and carrying out the whims of successive presidents. After a century of bumpy history, that concern has not gone away.
Critics paint a portrait of a bureau that has no qualms about probing the reading habits of sinless grandmothers. High-profile bumbling in the Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewell cases has shed further doubt on the bureau's intentions. And on some occasions, the FBI has been forced to admit overstepping, as when Director Robert Mueller said earlier this year that the bureau had misused "national security letters" to obtain personal records on American citizens.
But the idea that the FBI doesn't mind -- and may even like -- running roughshod over rights is misguided. In fact, the bureau has demonstrated remarkable restraint over most of the course of its history, at the same time that it has established an impressive record of success in investigating and pursuing threats.
Much of the criticism mischaracterizes problems. For example, in uncovering the deficiencies with national security letters, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine said the FBI did not intentionally violate any rules. He determined that the FBI in most cases had obtained information to which it was, in fact, entitled. Few press reports carried those caveats.
Critics have claimed that the USA Patriot Act allows the FBI to use "sneak and peek" tactics in libraries to find out who is reading "Tom Sawyer" without informing the targets until after a search. But the FBI always had authority, with a judge's approval, to conduct a search without telling the suspect until a later point in the investigation.
If the FBI were trying to stop a terrorist bombing and needed to search the computer of a suspect in order to round up the plotters without tipping them off, would anyone want the FBI to inform the suspect that his computer was about to be searched? If the FBI cannot be trusted to search computers or wiretap within the framework of the law, then why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons?
To be sure, under Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI engaged in illegal wiretapping of domestic targets and spied on political opponents for presidents. But since the Hoover days, no court has found that the FBI has engaged in an abuse -- meaning an illegal act for improper or political purposes.
Under the Clinton administration, the bureau was so cautious that agents were explicitly prohibited from following suspects into mosques. And they had to jump through hoops before they could sign on to online chat rooms to develop leads -- though any 12-year-old could easily enter. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has struck the right balance. As he said during the FBI's anniversary celebration, "It is not enough to stop the terrorist -- we must stop him while maintaining his civil liberties."
Mueller has turned the FBI into an agency that emphasizes preventing terrorist incidents, rather than prosecuting them after the fact. Since 9/11, the FBI and CIA have rolled up 5,000 terrorists worldwide. Every few months, the FBI announces new arrests.
Besides fighting terrorism, the FBI developed criminal profiling, which has led to the arrests of thousands of serial rapists and serial killers. It pioneered the use of DNA to pinpoint or to exonerate suspects. It wiped out the Ku Klux Klan and has largely eviscerated the Mafia. It has taken down financial titans who defrauded investors of billions of dollars, and it has uncovered some of the most damaging spies in U.S. history. If your child were kidnapped, you would want the FBI on your side.
The FBI's fight against terrorism and other crime has produced an American success story, fully justifying faith in the bureau. But only if we continue to provide FBI agents with the tools and other powers they need to uncover clues to terrorist plots will we win the war for the country's survival.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, is author of "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI."