Ronald Kessler is a former Washington Post investigative reporter and the author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.”
When Michaele and Tareq Salahi crashed a White House state dinner five years ago, President Obama said he “could not have more confidence” in the Secret Service.
When the Secret Service sent home 11 agents from Cartagena, Colombia, for hiring prostitutes, the White House said Obama had “full confidence” in the Secret Service.
When an armed intruder penetrated the White House itself in September, a spokesman again said Obama had “full confidence” in the Secret Service.
Even now, after two senior Secret Service managers suspected of having been drinking drove their vehicle, overhead lights flashing, through security tape at the White House and hit a temporary barricade, the White House said Obama has “full confidence” in his newly appointed director, Joseph P. Clancy.
Obama is in denial about the systemic problems at the Secret Service. In choosing Clancy in February to reform the agency, Obama ignored the chief recommendation of his own four-person panel that he name an outsider for the job. Instead, Obama turned to Clancy, a career agent who earned his trust as head of the president’s protective detail and who had been acting director since October.
Coming from the same culture that has led to all the failings, Clancy represents everything that is wrong with the agency. If there had been any doubt about that in Obama’s mind, it should have been dispelled when Clancy stonewalled at a House Judiciary Committee hearing when asked whether anyone would be held accountable for making false statements about Omar J. Gonzalez’s intrusion at the White House.
Even though the Secret Service knew immediately that Gonzalez had penetrated the White House and was armed with a knife, Clancy insisted that the agency did not intentionally issue falsehoods when it told the press that Gonzalez had been stopped at the door and was unarmed. When asked how he knew the untruths were not intentional, Clancy admitted he did not know how or why the false statements were made.
To Secret Service agents, Clancy’s appointment meant it would be business as usual at the agency charged with protecting the president’s life.
“Clancy staying is the worst thing that could happen to us,” a current Secret Service agent who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation told me. “He is cut from the same cloth as the previous recent directors. You have to get rid of that mentality. Agents will not speak out about problems because of the repercussions. He has made no effort to change that and will not make the changes that are necessary.”
As if to prove the point that Clancy was the wrong man to fix the Secret Service, in the latest incident, two weeks after Obama named him director, a senior Secret Service supervisor and another agent who was second in command of Obama’s protective detail plowed their cruiser into a security barricade at the White House. They were returning from a retirement party at a bar in Chinatown.
Officials with knowledge of the incident have told The Post that uniformed Secret Service officers wanted to arrest them and administer sobriety tests but were overruled by a supervisor, who let the agents go home.
Clancy’s response? He has moved the two agents into “non-supervisory, non-operational” jobs while an investigation is carried out, and he took no action against the supervisor. In contrast, when lower-ranking agents engaged prostitutes in Colombia, the agency put them on administrative leave and ordered them to turn over their guns, badges and credentials.
Equally revealing, it took five days for Secret Service officials to inform Clancy of the incident. That tells you everything Obama should need to know about whether Clancy has turned around the agency. In fact, since becoming acting director in October, Clancy has done nothing to change the culture of the agency, which punishes agents for reporting problems or threats and rewards with promotions those agents who ignore problems and pretend the service is invincible. As an example of that culture, a Secret Service uniformed officer who reported hearing gunshots fired at the White House on Nov. 11, 2011, but was ordered by her supervisor to forget it because he thought the noise was from a construction site, said she feared her bosses would criticize her if she continued to press the point.
With much fanfare in the press, Clancy pushed out several top officials who fostered a culture leading to laxness, corner-cutting and cover-ups. But unreported in the press, Clancy replaced them with managers who came from that same culture: Clancy has been rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.
Unfortunately, the one person who could initiate the needed steps to reform the agency by appointing an outside director who is immune from the corrupt management culture and is not beholden to interests within the agency continues to have “full confidence” in its operations—despite all evidence to the contrary. That is a dangerous delusion. It’s time for Obama to wake up and appoint an outsider such as a former high-ranking FBI official to end the decline of the once elite Secret Service.
How To Fix the Secret Service
By Ronald Kessler
Time October 2, 2014
Ronald Kessler is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.
If a corporation is performing poorly, the CEO is replaced with an outsider who can shake up the company and change the culture—the same should apply here.
If you are wondering how the Secret Service became such a tarnished agency, look back to 2003 when it became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Forced to compete for funds with 21 other national security agencies in a department of 240,000 employees, the Secret Service, which previously was under the Treasury Department, became more political and compliant. Mark Sullivan, appointed director by President George W. Bush in 2006, proudly proclaimed that the Secret Service "makes do with less."
Over time, corner cutting and laxness became more prevalent, while the agency became more arrogant. As revealed in my book The First Family Detail, it became commonplace for Secret Service management to order agents to let people into events without magnetometer or metal detection screening to curry favor with White House or campaign staffs impatient with long lines. Uniformed officers such as those who let Michaele and Tareq Salahi and a third intruder, Carlos Allen, into a state dinner at the White House in 2009 became convinced that Secret Service management would not back them if they turned away party crashers at the White House gate.
Agents who called attention to deficiencies or potential threats were punished, never to be promoted. Those who went along with such outrageous White House requests as turning off alarms and who perpetuated the myth that the Secret Service is invincible were promoted and given bonuses.
Reflecting that preoccupation with image, just after replacing Sullivan as director, Julia Pierson, his chief of staff for five years, sent an email to all agents reminding them to maintain a "professional appearance." Tattoos should not be visible, and facial hair must be short and "neatly groomed," she instructed. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover reflected the same obsession with outward appearance, helping to conceal the bureau’s many flaws.
The Secret Service’s annual budget is $1.5 billion — about the cost of one B-2 stealth bomber. Besides its protective duties, the agency investigates counterfeiting and financial crimes. Given the importance of the presidency, doubling the budget would be money well spent. But rather than request substantially more funds, the Secret Service assures President Obama and members of Congress that the agency is fulfilling its job with the modest increases it requests. Pierson even proposed a decrease in funding.
Meanwhile, the agency takes on more duties, and sleep-deprived agents often work almost around the clock. Citing cost, the Secret Service has refused to update with the latest technology its devices at the White House for detecting intruders and weapons of mass destruction. Yet scrimping on protection of the president, the vice president and presidential candidates risks an assassination that would undermine American democracy.
Congress has also been derelict in its duty. When it comes to selecting a Secret Service director, Congress has never demanded accountability by requiring Senate confirmation.
The list of appointments that do require Senate confirmation is long and the positions often obscure. Not only the head of the U.S. Marshals Service requires Senate confirmation but also 94 marshals positions, one in each judicial district. Besides the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the director of the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime requires confirmation. So does the librarian of Congress and the deputy director for demand reduction of the so-called drug czar. The Secret Service director is missing from this list.
Yet along with the FBI, whose director does require confirmation, the Secret Service is the paramount agency responsible for protecting American democracy. And given its powers, the service’s potential for engaging in abuses is almost as great as the FBI’s.
Since Pierson’s resignation, we have heard proposals to transform the Secret Service into an as-yet-undefined new agency, move it to another department such as the Justice Department, or even place it under the military. These are foolish ideas. If a corporation is performing poorly, the CEO is replaced with an outsider who can shake up the company and change the culture.
The same solution applies to the Secret Service. As FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III removed anyone who did not tell him an honest story. The FBI performed magnificently under his management, protecting us since 9/11 from foreign terrorist attacks.
As Mueller’s successor, President Obama made an excellent choice in naming James Comey, who previously served in the Justice Department. Given that his own life is at stake, I believe Obama can be counted on to select a similarly outstanding candidate to be the new Secret Service director.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.
Surveillance: An American Success Story
By Ronald Kessler
Politico August 23, 2013
It’s fine for Democrats and Republicans to target potential voters based on what they buy, whether they attend a church or a synagogue, or whether they subscribe to hunting magazines or contribute to the Sierra Club. It seems to be fine for Gmail to read our email messages to target us with ads tailored to whether we are about to get married, vote for a certain candidate, or purchase a house.
But what’s not fine, according to many in the media and politicians on the extreme left and extreme right, is for the government to store telephone numbers in case a warrant is needed at some point in the future to uncover the identity of a terrorist plotting to kill thousands of Americans.
Never mind that the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the practice of obtaining telephone call records without a warrant. Never mind that a warrant must be obtained for the FBI to listen to a call. Never mind that no actual abuse has been found.
To be sure, errors — which the National Security Agency (NSA) has itself uncovered — occur, just as newspapers make errors that they correct daily. But no one has been able to cite a case of the government actually “spying on innocent Americans,” a breathless term used freely by the media and critics to imply improper intent.
Instead, critics have pointed to the potential for abuse. In the same way, a police officer or FBI agent could potentially abuse his position by using his or her weapon unlawfully. Is that a reason to disarm all police officers and FBI agents?
The NSA surveillance program is layered with oversight conducted by Congress, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the Justice Department, and the NSA inspector general. If an abuse were to occur, the proper course would be to prosecute those responsible — not dismantle a program that, had it been in place before the 9/11 attacks, might well have foiled the hijackers’ plot.
As FBI Director Robert Mueller has testified, the NSA telephone records program would have connected calls that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar, made shortly before the attacks from a phone in San Diego to a Yemeni safe house. With that knowledge, the FBI could have detained him and his cohorts and “derailed the plan,” Mueller said.
The fact is that because of the NSA program and other changes in the intelligence community, we have not had a successful attack by foreign terrorists since 9/11. Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of NSA, has testified that the U.S. government disrupted 54 terrorist plots and plans. The government did this by using information collected under the NSA telephone surveillance and Internet interception programs. For example, an intercepted email from a terrorist in Pakistan led to the interruption of the New York subway bombing plot in 2009, Alexander said.
Since 9/11, the USA Patriot Act has torn down the invisible wall that was perceived as preventing the FBI and CIA from sharing information. Now, FBI and CIA analysts sit side by side, sharing information 24 hours a day at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia. The FBI has become prevention-oriented, meaning its first goal is stopping an attack rather than gathering evidence for a prosecution.
Yet in the eyes of politicians from liberal Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the government is the villain. Wyden has warned ominously of an “omnipresent surveillance state.” Paul has raised the specter of a “grand spymaster.” Yet Paul has refused to attend briefings on the surveillance program. And Wyden’s Republican and Democratic colleagues on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have outvoted him on whether to curtail the program.
As if they had discovered another Watergate scandal, the same media critics who pounced on the intelligence community after 9/11 for failing to connect the dots are the ones now exposing and denouncing as an invasion of privacy the program that connects those intelligence dots.
Instead of demonizing those who are trying to make us safe, raising hypothetical concerns, and endlessly criticizing programs that work, critics in the media and Congress should be hailing the efforts of the intelligence community to prevent another attack.
At national holidays, we recognize the military for preserving our freedoms. Yet no one mentions the equally important efforts of FBI agents, CIA officers, and NSA employees who work around the clock, sometimes at risk to their lives, to detect and roll up plots. That’s an American success story.
“The men and women of our intelligence community work every single day to keep us safe because they love this country and believe in our values,” President Obama said at his last press conference. “They’re patriots.”
Obama got it right.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, is author of The Secrets of the FBI.
Books That Explode Presidential Myths
By Ronald Kessler
Wall Street Journal January 9, 2010
No executive privilege here: These books memorably explode presidential myths, says Ronald Kessler
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.