For all its quiet successes, the Secret Service has also had some well-publicized problems. The most intractable one stems from a decades-old division in the agency between its 3,000 or so plainclothes agents-who rotate between protective duties in Washington and investigative work around the country-and its 1,172 uniformed officers-who work exclusively in Washington, guarding the White House, the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory, and the areas around some 600 embassies, consulates, and other "foreign missions." This conflict flared anew in the stressful year after 9/11, prompting critical articles in U.S. News & World Report. Over the course of fiscal year 2002, the General Accounting Office reported, 25 percent of the Uniformed Division's officers quit.
Much of this attrition stemmed from brutal overtime hours in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and from defections to the vastly expanded, and higher-paying, air marshals program that protects airline passengers. But the high turnover also stems from morale problems going back decades. The Secret Service's management, dominated by plainclothes agents, treats the Uniformed Division as a "stepchild," said Lou Cannon, president of the D.C. lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the service on behalf of its uniformed officers. "They're not thought of as equals."
Unlike local police departments, which recruit their plainclothes detectives from the ranks of uniformed patrol officers, the Secret Service recruits its two types of officers entirely separately-and in fact, they represent two distinct organizations, unhappily married together in 1930. Previously, the president's Secret Service plainclothes bodyguards had no authority over the uniformed force, which was drawn mainly from the D.C. Metropolitan Police, and which had the job of protecting the executive mansion and its grounds. But when an intruder-who later turned out to be harmless-wandered past the uniformed police into the White House, a furious Herbert Hoover persuaded Congress to place all of his protectors under one command.
In recent years, the Secret Service has reorganized to try to bridge the divide-largely by placing more plainclothes agents in supervisory positions over uniformed officers. There is no talk, however, of putting uniformed officers in charge of agents. Critics say this management structure reduces highly trained uniformed officers to the role of glorified security guards.
"The life of an officer at the White House, and to some extent at the vice president's residence, is extremely boring. You're basically there protecting the grounds ... just watching and waiting," said one officer. Assignment to the Foreign Missions branch is more desirable, because those officers get out and actively patrol Washington's Embassy Row. But management has stripped the Foreign Missions branch to beef up protection at the White House. And even before 9/11, the dissidents say, managers informally but consistently reined in uniformed officers who made "too many" arrests or traffic stops, often transferring them out of Foreign Missions. Discontent grew so strong that uniformed officers secretly taped one supervisor's admonitions to hold back, then leaked the tape to local news media.
The situation is sadly ironic. Local police officers around the country praise Secret Service agents for being gracious and cooperative; yet the service still struggles to get along with its own police force. Growing Concern
As the war on terrorism has grown, so too has the Secret Service. From 1998 to 2003, the Secret Service's roster of agents grew by 40 percent, from 2,252 to 3,150, and its budget jumped by 80 percent.