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The Future of the Secret Service: A Conversation with Carol Leonnig

The agency needs a mission overhaul, new technology and a promotion system focused on performance, not loyalty, says the author of "Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service."

In her new book, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service, Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig presents a highly critical portrait of the Secret Service. Based on interviews with present and former Secret Service agents, she found the agency has become “a paper tiger … weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.” I had the opportunity to talk with Leonnig about her thoughts on the future of the Secret Service.  

Mark Abramson: I found the book to be pretty alarming about the state of the Secret Service. How concerned should I be about the safety of President Biden and Vice President Harris? 

Carol Leonnig: The dedication of the men and women of the Secret Service has made the difference between life and death for many presidents and they continue to serve that vital role of presidential protection. As an agency, however, the Service has lots of chinks in its armor. The people I spoke with, many of whom risked their careers to speak to me, are worried about their agency and the ability of the Secret Service to do [its] job. 

MA: Has the Secret Service made improvements after its numerous incidents in recent years?

CL:  Absolutely. The agency has tried to patch its vulnerabilities. It has almost completed its hiring initiative. It has raised the fence around the White House to make it more difficult for fence jumpers to get onto the White House grounds, including the house itself. The Service has also spent some money on replacing failing technologies, but it still has a long way to go to bring their security into the twenty-first century. 

MA: Your book describes many episodes of late-night drinking and the infamous Cartagena, Columbia incident of Secret Service agents and prostitutes.  

CL:  Lots of bad behavior was covered up for many years in the Secret Service. Their culture [embodied the] attitude that “if you work hard, you can party hard.” International trips were viewed as perks for all their selfless work in safeguarding the president. Because of its job protecting the president, the Secret Service has many “secrets” in how they protect the president. Some agents have used this culture of secrecy in a bad way. 

MA: You were often told in your interviews that the Secret Service needed more women. Has the agency increased the number of female agents?  

CL: I don’t know what their hiring numbers are right now. When I started my book, only 13% of Secret Service agents were women. Women have told me that it is a difficult place to work. There is workplace hazing of women. Women have told me that they have to be as “strong” as men to be agents. The Secret Service has traditionally been dismissive when women sought to serve on the presidential protection team. Female agents were told that the presidential protection is “like the NFL.” When she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton inquired about a female protection team but was unsuccessful. Second Lady Karen Pence also requested more female agents on her protection team and was successful. 

MA: I was struck by the leadership ineptitude of many of the past directors. You talk about the tension between picking a director from inside the Service and picking a director from outside. Did you come to any conclusions about whether you would recommend a director from the inside or outside?

CL: Interestingly, the agency has resisted like crazy having anyone from outside the agency serve as director. There was always the belief that only an agent who has protected the president can serve as director of the agency. This is now a 7,000 -erson agency. Protecting the president no longer solely equips an individual to serve as director. Protecting the president does not provide experience charting a strategic mission, making IT changes, and getting a budget approved by Congress. Many of the previous directors failed to get the agency the money it needed to do its job. One director, Julie Pierson, looked at the books and was honest in concluding that the agency did not have adequate funding and she went to the Office of Management and Budget to request additional funding. Professional management is needed in the Secret Service. The director can be a former agent if they trust and listen to their professional managers. 

The agency has been mostly run by insiders until very recently. A few managers have been brought in from outside the agency. Former Director Joseph Clancy brought in a former military official to help with contracting. The Department of Defense does know how to do contracting. For many years, the Secret Service placed agents in charge of budgeting and information technology who had little management experience. They had agents planning their strategic mission and agents in charge of national security planning for the agency.  

It is really not a question of an “insider” or “outsider” running the agency. It is a question of bringing somebody in who will look at the agency with fresh eyes and be willing to absorb the ideas of those outside the agency. A director needs to listen to outsiders and not just listen to those inside the agency.  

MA: In hindsight, do you think moving the Secret Service to the Department of Homeland Security was a mistake? Did the Secret Service receive inadequate oversight by DHS?

CL: When the Secret Service moved to DHS, they did get overlooked and short changed. If OMB and Congress had wanted to, they could have put more resources into the Secret Service. But in that time period, all the money and all the energy went to the other behemoth homeland security agencies. 

The critical issue is that the mission of the Secret Service is too large and its budget too small. In addition, agency leadership has not been strategic and they have favored the status quo. The organizational location of the agency has not been the crucial issue. 

MA: What impression did you come away with regarding congressional oversight? Was it ever very effective?

CL: Historically, the Service was very successful in convincing Congress not to look too closely at it. This ended with the increase in fence jumping and the Columbia sex scandal. Those incidents really got the attention of Congress and motivated them to bring about change. For a time, there was bipartisan support for change. Both Republicans and Democrats had a shared reason to be concerned. But for the most part, Congress has been in a reactive mode. Not much interest in proactive measures to prevent future catastrophes.  

MA: Do you have some thoughts on fixing the Secret Service? 

CL: Based on my reporting and long interviews with the selfless patriots who have worked at the Secret Service, there is agreement on the following needed changes. First, the agency needs a mission overhaul. Second, they need a technology refresh and updated technology. Third, they need to undertake a close examination of its leadership structure and its promotion system. Historically, the agency promotion system was all about loyalty and not about standout performance.   

MA: What is the likelihood of change actually taking place? 

CL: I hear that respected alumni of the Secret Service are talking to the White House about the need to take a hard look at the agency and the need to rebuild it. The Biden administration has an eye on the problems surrounding the Secret Service, but the administration has lots on its plate right now.

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is mark.abramson@comcast.net.