The Secret Service’s real problem

 

Special to The Washington Post

These are disturbing days for the agency charged with protecting the president of the United States. From prostitutes in Colombia to drunkenness in Amsterdam, it is no wonder that so many members of Congress — as well as former agents — have lost patience with a Secret Service that can’t seem to stay out of the news with embarrassing and high-profile cases of misconduct.

I was a Secret Service agent for 21 years, spent two tours of duty on the Presidential Protective Division and four years on the Counter Assault Team (CAT), and was part of trips for three presidents. I retired 10 years ago and have no dog in today’s agency fights. I do not believe that alcohol abuse is a cultural problem within the Secret Service. (In fact, many agents do not drink at all, and those who do tend to consume in moderation.)

The problem in the agency is not alcohol or debauchery, but weak leadership. There are too many incompetent managers who want the title, pay and perks of management while performing no duties of leadership. The problem is not bad Secret Service agents but bad leaders of Secret Service agents.

The U.S. Secret Service was created in 1865 and began protecting the president in 1902. During 110 years of presidential protection, the agency accompanied presidents on hundreds of thousands of domestic and overseas trips without bringing any unwanted attention upon itself. That is because, in my experience, agents tend to be intelligent, well-trained and fiercely patriotic Americans — nearly fanatical in their devotion to the mission at hand.

Yet, history shows that even the best units perform poorly with poor leaders, and the Secret Service is a prime example. The most disturbing common thread among the recent episodes of misconduct is that supervisors or team leaders have been involved. While it is unacceptable for any agent to commit infractions such as those in Amsterdam and Colombia, it is utterly inexcusable for those in charge to be involved. If managers show continued lapses in judgment, how and why would anyone expect the rank and file to behave better?

The Secret Service may not admit it, but its promotion system is primarily designed to move the best-liked people, not necessarily the best-qualified, into managerial positions. Much like in a college fraternity, a small group of senior agents votes on who will be promoted. These decisions are based as much on office politics, popularity and political correctness as the abilities of those being considered for upward mobility. While this practice is widespread in many professions, it is unacceptable in an agency whose primary function is to keep the president of the United States alive and safe. Competence should be the overriding concern in all government agencies, but especially so in an organization whose agents stand next to the president and other top officials with loaded firearms.

The agency doesn’t prioritize competence among its managers, yet it somehow stands baffled about why it cannot control the behavior of its agents, forcing the director to return to Capitol Hill again and again to apologize for their conduct. The apologies may temporarily appease critics, but they do nothing to address the catastrophic failure of leadership within the organization.

When I became a Secret Service agent in 1983, we were generally well led. Most of our top and mid-level supervisors were armed forces veterans; they managed and led by the ethos of military leadership, which dictates accomplishing the mission while taking care of those entrusted to them. They expected much from their subordinates but knew that they must set the example we would follow.

The Secret Service of today is awash in managers, not leaders. Many supervisors have little tangible or leadership experience, yet they are designated as managers on the basis of their titles and long lists of schools attended. Alas, leadership cannot be taught in a classroom alone. In the military, people must first pass Officer Candidate School before assuming leadership roles. In the federal government, more often than not, people are promoted first and then trained to be leaders — the concept is entirely backward.

In December, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued a report finding no evidence that “misconduct is widespread” in the Secret Service. Though it was dismissed as a whitewash by some critics, I view the findings to be quite correct. The problem of leadership, however, stems in part from the department’s oversight of the Secret Service.

From its creation until shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Secret Service fell under the Treasury Department, where it operated efficiently and largely unencumbered. However, after Osama bin Laden attacked America, the Secret Service became part of the Department of Homeland Security — a massive and nightmarish new federal bureaucracy. In this environment, many young and ill-prepared agents were promoted to positions of management far too early in their careers to supervise a significant number of new positions. Today, many of those agents who were promoted too soon are at the highest levels of the Secret Service.

Whenever an elite organization expands too rapidly, care must be taken not to compromise standards. Unfortunately, this was not always done during the large expansion of the Secret Service that followed Sept. 11.

The tragedy of this horrid and ineffective system is that many highly qualified agents who would be superb leaders are passed over for promotion; they are not in “the club.” The result is evident in today’s embarrassing headlines.

Can this train wreck be put back on track? Can the Secret Service regain its respect? I believe it can. But congressional overseers need to agree that there is a massive leadership problem in the agency and start a general purge of some top-level managers through forced retirement. Then the Secret Service should begin a leadership school for entry-level managers, preferably conducted by the military. While major corporations and the federal government have become huge proponents of every type of management and business school imaginable, and have spent millions of dollars sending their neophyte managers to them, the military best understands leadership in its most basic form — and that is what the Secret Service is missing.

Finally, the next director should come from outside the agency, rather than rising up through the rank and file. When drastic changes are needed, it is difficult for someone who is friends with almost everyone in headquarters to make objective decisions. In this case, the agency needs someone with no allegiances to top-level managers.

The best leaders willingly take responsibility for the actions of their people. When I was a 23-year-old second lieutenant with the 1st Marine Division, my first company commander informed me that he would hold me responsible for everything my men did or failed to do. His hard lesson: It is the commander who bears the ultimate responsibility for subordinates’ actions. This lesson seems to be unique to the military, though it should apply non-uniformed government workers, too.

If high-ranking officials were terminated or disciplined for the infractions of their wayward subordinates, rather than the wrongdoers themselves receiving all the punishment, perhaps there would be fewer incidents such as the ones haunting the Secret Service of late.

Dan Emmett, a former Marine Corps captain, retired Secret Service agent and former CIA intelligence officer, is the author of “Within Arm’s Length: A Secret Service Agent’s Definitive Inside Account of Protecting the President,” forthcoming in June.

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