New report rips Secret Service. 'Starved for leadership'?

An independent panel's report adds up to a serious indictment of a once-proud agency. First among its recommendations: a much taller fence for the White House.

Larry Downing/Reuters
The US Secret Service needs strong new leadership from outside the agency and an infusion of agents and uniformed officers – not to mention a better fence – to protect the White House adequately, an independent review panel said on Thursday.

The White House needs a much taller fence to protect the president and first family. That’s the headline recommendation from an independent panel convened to assess the Secret Service in the wake of a series of embarrassing agency failures this fall.

The barrier needs to be extended at least four to five feet upward, according to the panel. Horizontal bars that allow easy hand- and foot-holds should be kept to a minimum. It’s possible that the top of the fence should be curved outwards to further deter fence-jumpers.

The point is not just physical protection. A higher White House fence would crucially aid the decision-making process for Secret Service agents on protective duty, says the review panel, composed of four former officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

That’s because the new fence might weed out casual thrill-seekers and the mentally challenged, according to the executive summary. If gaining access to the White House grounds was more strenuous and perhaps even a bit painful, agents would know that anyone who made it inside would be more likely to pose a danger to the president. 

This would make it easier for them to decide whether to use lethal force or not, according to the panel.

“A more effective fence can minimize the instances when such difficult decision making is required,” says the executive summary of the panel report.

The nature of the barrier surrounding the Executive Mansion is a sensitive issue within Washington. Law enforcement officials place the highest priority on their protective mission. Meanwhile, some city architecture review boards and many residents oppose a more fortified approach. They don’t want an area of downtown D.C. walled off, as if it were the Kremlin

The review panel report deals with this issue first and at length. It’s not the only recommendation, however. In some ways the other suggestions add up to a serious indictment of the current state of a once-proud law enforcement agency.

The Secret Service is “starved for leadership,” the panel says. Crucially, it says the next director should come from outside the agency.

That’s because the reviewers also decided the service is “too insular” and needs an infusion of outside experience.

Training is far below acceptable levels, the reviewers say. That’s because there aren’t enough agents in the Uniform Division to allow regular training rotations. 

Right now the service is providing a total amount of training equivalent to only 25 minutes per agent per year. For the Uniformed Division it should equal at least 10 percent of their time annually, the report says.

Doing so would mean “the Service has to increase significantly in size,” writes the panel. That, in turn, would require bigger budgets, which are tough to get at a time when federal spending is very tight.

The report says the need for these moves, particularly the new fence, is urgent. But there are signs the incoming Congress will want to make its own investigation into the matter before proceeding. That’s likely to slow things down considerably.

“At the start of the new Congress, we will be conducting a bipartisan investigation that will allow lawmakers to further examine some of the matters highlighted in this report,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman-elect Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah and current panel ranking minority member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland.

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