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US Secret Service Woes – Trouble in Colombia

Reporting over the past few days regarding an advance detail of U.S. Secret Service (USSS) and U.S. Military personnel’s activities in Colombia has been riveting. Being a former federal law enforcement officer, I was not shocked by their activities, but I was truly saddened. After a few drinks, people can disregard their normal good judgment, and do some pretty silly things. But people responsible for the safety and security of the President and others just cannot engage in this kind of behavior.

The internal USSS investigation will result in discipline for a lot of folks who were on the ground and in the chain of command because that is how things like this are ultimately resolved. But what does this behavior say about the internal culture and workings of the USSS?

For many years, the USSS was an arm of the Department of the Treasury and functioned well in that institution. With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USSS was shifted over to that organization and has been a part of it for the last several years. I think I am one of many former Federal Agents who always wondered why the USSS was moved from Treasury to DHS. It has never made a lot of sense to me. DHS’s focus has been border security, prevention and response to man-made or natural disasters, information sharing, and a host of other programs. While DHS has many law enforcement agencies, as I understand them most are related in one way or another to border security. So why is an agency whose primary mission is VIP protection in DHS? Why wasn’t the USSS either left in Treasury or moved to the Department of Justice, which seems to me to be much better fit for their mission?

When I served in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterterrorism program, one of the major issues that haunted us in the late 80s and well into the late 90s was the lack of resources to do the job. We also were confronted with a culture of field leaders who, for the most part, wanted little to do with National Security investigations. It was a fight for resources with the Hill until we had major attacks such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building. Even when we had resources finally provided by Congress, it was a fight with the field leaders to use them. We had many solid FBI Special Agents-In-Charge, but in spite of our efforts, they just never got it. All that changed after 9/11. Perhaps this incident is the USSS’ 9/11 event.

In the law enforcement business tough, no nonsense leadership is critical to ensure that the tone and expectations of the agency are set and followed. At the same time, it is critical for the troops to know and understand what is expected of them and to play by those rules. If they don’t, swift disciplinary action should follow. Also, the troops need to be supported with adequate equipment, communications, training, exercising, and technology. All of this costs money, and I have to wonder if funding and location of the USSS within the federal law enforcement family are parts of the problem. If they are, changes need to be made so that something terrible does not occur in the future.

There will be a lot more reported in the days to come regarding the “Colombia Incident.” It is my hope that the Administration and Congress will take a deep look at the USSS, study the issues that contributed to this situation, and act. My own sense is that they are in the wrong Department, with leadership problems, and are starved for funding.

Robert Blitzer blogs on law enforcement, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, emergency management, and public health and medical emergency response. Read More
  • Mbkraft

    Bob:
         From what I’ve heard and read, the Secret Service was stuffed into DHS because the  Bush White House staffers who rushed to assemble the DHS legislation did not know what they were doing. The Coast Guard and other operations were pushed into the big tent.  A common theory is that the Bush administration wanted to be deny collective bargaining rights to as many federal employes as possible. I doubt if this had an effect on the Secret Service culture, but being part of a super agency does not help.

    Bests,
    Mike Kraft

  • Don Gambatesa

    Although he is a former FBI agent, like most publically commenting on the events in Columbia, Mr. Blitzer really knows little about the inner workings of the Secret Service. He,  as many others with little institutional knowledge about the Secret Service (USSS), have suggested or have outright said that there is a problem with the internal culture in that agency. Having retired from the USSS with over 24 years as a field agent and senior manager, I can say that the culture of the Service is of dedication, duty, sacrifice, and trust. Unfortunately, some of my former colleagues have violated more than one of those tenants and have brought disgrace to an agency that has proudly served our country for over 147 years. Mr. Blitzer also suggests that the Congress and the Administration should take a good look at the USSS and study the issues that contributed to this unfortunate situation. Sounds like a terrible waste of time and government resources, because there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the USSS as an agency. It like every other government agency including the FBI has employees who do stupid things. The FBI has had its share of problems over the years including criminal activity by agents. These bad apples are eventually removed from agencies. Let’s stop trying to indict an agency of over 6000 employees for the terribly stupid actions of 11.

  • MWB1878

    While I don’t disagree that DHS was hastily put together in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and that the USSS may or may not be the right fit there, I do see some validity to shifting them from Treasury to DHS.  Aside from their VIP protection mission, let’s not forget their original mission to safeguard our currency, which is in effect, safeguarding our way of life.  This mission has long since expanded beyond paper currency as our society moves more and more to a “paperless” economy.  While ICE and CBP focus on the borders, it is just as important to have a law enforcement agency under DHS looking more internally.  Regarding a possible problem with the culture of USSS under DHS vs. Treasury, I think that is a moot point.  While I am not a federal law enforcement agency, I do know something of government bureaucracy.  At the field agent and supervisor level, I really don’t think it matters which Cabinet Secretary you report to.