Finally, a security breach at the White House that does not appear to be the fault of the Secret Service -this time. A drone crashed onto the grounds. Fortunately, it was harmless. That it penetrated the perimeter at all illustrates the magnitude of the responsibility the Secret Service has. Short of erecting a bubble over the White House complex, there is no immediate or obvious answer to drone intrusion - yet. But there are things that can be done to solve some of the other security problems that have come to light.
Heads have recently rolled at Secret Service headquarters. Many veteran agents privately admit that accountability and discipline were often lacking at the venerated agency, and that this move is long overdue.
Admittedly, the system is not perfect, nor can it be. As Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent who pushed President Reagan into the limousine after he was shot and ordered the driver to speed toward the hospital, would often tell people: "being president is dangerous." The job of the Secret Service, he said, was not to eliminate all the dangers, but to reduce them as much as humanly possible.
To accomplish that, as a new leadership team takes over at the Secret Service, they should give serious consideration to the following ways to fix the agency's problems:
1. Return the agency to the Department of the Treasury. The Secret Service had always been the jewel in Treasury's crown. But in an effort to populate a new government bureaucracy, the Secret Service was moved to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 and things have never been the same since. At DHS, the Secret Service is one of many entities, forced to fight for funds and attention. That was not the case when it was part of Treasury, and it is no coincidence that Secret Service morale and performance have suffered since the move to DHS. The Department of the Treasury building is literally within the White House complex, and senior Secret Service agents used to serve on the Secretary of the Treasury's immediate personal staff. The relationship between the Secret Service and the White House was special, and the pride employees felt at being part of it made a difference in how they performed their tasks. With its primary missions of protecting the President, our currency and guarding against financial crimes, the Secret Service belongs in the Treasury Department, just as the FBI belongs at the Department of Justice. Bringing the Secret Service home to Treasury will be an immediate shot in the arm to employees at all levels.
2. Hire an experienced, credible and savvy public affairs staff. The Secret Service has always relied on Special Agents to fill public affairs roles, and that is often like putting a square peg in a round hole. The Secret Service needs a staff that understands and respects the press, and will be straightforward, honest and complete when answering questions.
3. Appoint a Director who is experienced and uncompromising in the highest standards of protection, who understands the rich history and culture of the Secret Service so he/she can have immediate credibility with employees, yet is someone who brings a fresh perspective to the position. The Director should not be window-dressing to serve a political agenda, but a real pro that can get the best performance out of every person in the agency.
4. Solve the identity crisis of the Uniformed Division. The more than 1,300 men and women who are often the public face of the Secret Service are the first line of protection, yet who they are as an organization has been all over the map. Originally established in 1922 as the White House Police, they were later renamed the Executive Protective Service and later as the Uniformed Division. Their management structure has also been inconsistent. Sometimes they reported to the Presidential Protective Division of the Secret Service, sometimes not. Recent events clearly show weaknesses that need to be immediately addressed.
With a Presidential campaign likely to see many candidates who will need protection, a multi-city Papal visit, and a President who has vowed to be active, the next few months will be as challenging as any in memory for the Secret Service. It is critical that the agency get its act together, so it can get the support it needs from Congress and the White House in terms of budget and personnel.
Mark D. Weinberg served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House. He is currently a communications consultant.