The Secret Service and the FBI model
The right G-man as director would not tolerate a culture of cover-ups
If you want to know how to fix the Secret Service, take a look at its sister organization, the FBI. Back when Louis J. Freeh was FBI director, the bureau seemed to be falling apart. Almost every six months, a new scandal erupted: the flawed indictment of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, the fiasco involving innocent bystander Richard Jewell at the Olympics bombing in Atlanta, and the failures of the FBI laboratory.
Each of the problems was directly traceable to decisions that Mr. Freeh made. Even FBI agent Robert Hanssen’s spying most likely would have stopped if Mr. Freeh had adopted a recommendation by Robert “Bear” Bryant, who headed the bureau’s National Security Division, to polygraph all counterintelligence agents. Instead, for seven more years until he was caught, Hanssen continued to provide the Russians with some of the most damaging information in the history of American espionage.
The deeper problem was that Mr. Freeh made it clear he did not want to hear countervailing views or bad news. He punished those who dared to disagree with him or tell him the truth about problems within the bureau.
“Freeh said he wants everything straight. The first person who told it to him straight, he cut his head off,” Weldon Kennedy, whom Mr. Freeh promoted to associate deputy director, is quoted as saying in my book “The Secrets of the FBI.”
All that changed dramatically when Mr. Freeh resigned and Robert S. Mueller III became FBI director just before Sept. 11, 2001. Early on, Mr. Mueller removed the head of the Counterintelligence Division when, while briefing him on a Chinese counterintelligence case in Los Angeles, she failed to warn him of problems with it. Mr. Mueller’s action sent a message throughout the bureau: In contrast to Mr. Freeh, Mr. Mueller would banish those who did not level with him and give him the facts.
With the same forcefulness, Mr. Mueller changed the FBI’s culture to emphasize preventing future attacks over pursuing prosecutions and obtaining convictions. Mr. Mueller placed Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, an agent who was a former Navy SEAL, over counterterrorism. When an agent came to him to propose an arrest, Mr. Cummings would tell the agent he may be putting the country at risk by doing so because it is more important to develop the individual as an asset to lead the FBI to more sources and plots.
The results have been impressive. Largely because of the FBI, we have not had a successful foreign terrorist attack since Sept. 11.
Today, the Secret Service faces the same problems the FBI faced under Mr. Freeh. The management culture punishes agents who tell the truth and report deficiencies or even possible threats. Agents who cover up problems, bend security rules under pressure from politicians, and promote the myth that the Secret Service with its meager budget is invincible are promoted.
We saw that mentality when a female Uniformed Division officer reported hearing gunshots at the White House on the evening of Nov. 11, 2011. When her supervisor pooh-poohed the report and told her the noise was from a construction site, she backed down. She later said she felt she would be criticized for telling the truth.
As with any organization in trouble, the solution is not to hold more hearings or write more reports, but to place a new CEO from the outside in charge. An outsider would be immune from the agency’s failed culture and would not be beholden to entrenched interests within the Secret Service.
Government has a tendency to want to reinvent the wheel. Yet the model that should be adopted is only a few blocks from Secret Service headquarters: the FBI, which has not only been highly successful, but has had few internal problems.
If a former high-ranking FBI official were named Secret Service director, he or she would not stand for the culture that promotes cover-ups and instills fear of reprisals for pointing out problems. Moreover, a former FBI official would recognize how flawed the Secret Service’s infrastructure is and fix it.
As an example, the Secret Service does not polygraph agents after they are hired, opening the door to a double agent and a possible assassination. In contrast, the FBI polygraphs all employees every five years and counterintelligence agents more often. Nor does the Secret Service give agents the kinds of annual updates on the law and arrest procedures that are standard at the FBI and most police departments.
As a former federal law enforcement official, a Secret Service director who comes from the FBI would not face the steep learning curve of a candidate from another background.
President Obama and his four-person panel that will propose changes would be wise to ask Mr. Mueller and James B. Comey, his successor as FBI director, for their recommendations. Given that the calamity of an assassination nullifies democracy, the need for an FBI official to overhaul the Secret Service could not be more urgent. Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal The Hidden Lives of the Presidents” (Crown Forum, 2014).