Trouble in the Secret Service

This post appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday Opinion Page on October 12, 2014

Drunken Secret Service operatives bring prostitutes to foreign hotels, fight with them over money, and pass out in the hallways. A man breaches many levels of security and gets into the White House while White House police officers stand by with dogs restrained and guns silent. A man with an automatic weapon fires on the White House. Bullets hit its exterior and supervisors tell officers to stand down because the shots were gangs fighting. An officer disagrees but remains silent, afraid of criticism. A maid discovers the bullet damage days later. Such behaviors and incompetence reflect a complacent and fearful group of agents and officers without leadership and moral courage and an agency in decline that puts the security of the President and others at risk.

I served as a Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service in the late 1960’s. I felt proud to be an agent and believed in the work I did whether chasing counterfeiters in Chicago or protecting the president in the White House. I stayed in the Secret Service for three years and always felt grateful for the experience of working with proud people who served a noble purpose passionately.

I was young and inexperienced and my time too long ago for me to be able to contrast the Secret Service then with the agency of today.

But I can raise concerns and questions as an organizational and leadership consultant:

I wonder what effect the haphazard creation of the Homeland Security Department had on the identity of the Secret Service and its purpose to protect the president of the United States. Should the Secret Service return to the Treasury Department to regain its focus?

I like to say, “It’s always about leadership.” What went wrong with the leaders of this once revered agency? Once an organization slides into decline, which the Secret Service has, leaders have lost credibility. The director has resigned. The top echelon of the Secret Service also needs to go and those leaders at the Special Agent in Charge level need to be evaluated.

The agency has grown by thousands of employees. Has the quality of special agents and White House police officers declined? What has made them fearful to act? Agents and officers need to trust and have faith in their leaders in order to be bold and aggressive in their actions.

What role does politics play in these humiliating failures? Do political folks in the White House tell the Secret Service when to turn alarms off, leave doors unlocked, and not to release the dogs because an innocent person may be hurt? I led many organizations in my career that were in decline. In each of them, the tail wagged the dog and that had to be turned around before the organization could be renewed.

Does Congress provide quality oversight of Homeland Security and the Secret Service? Does the dysfunction of Congress infect the Secret Service and other agencies?

People in the Secret Service deserve strong, tough-love leadership. The new leader, hopefully from outside the agency, must renew the Secret Service by reinvigorating the noble purpose of the Secret Service, regaining the trust of the agents and officers, and clarifying roles and responsibilities of agents, officers, and White House political staff.

Pride, strong leadership, and moral courage must once again flow through the ranks.

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