It's Impossible To Be The Secret Service These Days

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It is a great irony of Washington: the federal agency closest in proximity to the most powerful political officials in the land is bound by an institutional culture that avoids politics -- and this agency generally draws the short end of the stick as a result. The moment that the Salahi security breach became politicized is the moment that the Secret Service lost control of its public image in ways that are detrimental to the agency and to its morale. And yet -- it had no choice, really. It cannot pick a fight with Congress. It cannot pick a fight with protectees. It cannot even pick a fight with Ronald Kessler, whose recent book about the Service is widely reviled inside the agency.

To choose but one example: the Washington Post obtains an internal report on 91 reported security breaches over a period of 23 years. 91 breaches! That sounds horrible. But to the Service, a breach -- really, a word that contains multitudes -- is many things. When a yahoo jumps over the White House fence and is bitten by a dog and placed in a sniper's crosshairs seconds later, that's a breach over which the Service has no initial control. When a grenade shell is found within the secure perimeter at a presidential event overseas, that's also a breach -- arguably an extremely bad breach -- though -- here again, there is a back-story to the incident that the Service, because it will not discuss methods and won't discuss the conversations its agents have with protectees, cannot tell. (The document in question was written well before the Georgia trip.) Perspective suggests that the Service has a good record. The existence of the 91-breach document is a testament to how seriously the Service takes its protective mission, not the other way around.

Of the 91 breaches recorded from 1980 to 2003, three resulted in someone getting into close proximity to the president. That's 3 in 23 years. After the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the Service began to "mag" each and every person who came within a certain perimeter of the president. Since 1981, not a single person has reached the president without going through the basic screening procedure. It's also worth noting that north of 90% of the people who shake the president's hand receive no background checks.

Take another fiction: a claim that threats to President Obama are 400 percent greater than threats to President Bush.  The Secret Service director, Mark Sullivan, has testified that this is false -- indeed, there is no difference in the threat level. The bad factoid is out there, though, contributing to a view that Obama generates more threats than his predecessors. It ain't so. Americans aren't crazier.

At the same time, if the Secret Service's protective intelligence specialists develop concerns about right wing extremism, they cannot voice those concerns, lest they be accused of taking sides in the debate about whether the populist conservative resurgence has a palpably dangerous component.

Fact: state dinner planning is a joint exercise. The Secret Service agent in charge of the advance communicates regularly with various White House staff members, who are intimately familiar with the security plan, even for these routine events. It was manifestly clear to the White House that no staff members were going to be present at the magnetometer checkpoints. And even though the Service took full responsibility for the Salahi breach, the White House released an internal report that essentially admitted that their own procedures contributed to the problem.

Because the Service depends upon Congress for its funding, it cannot alienate this patron. Even though the usefulness of hearing the Service's director testify in public about sensitive security procedures is questionable, the Service cannot complain. For a variety of reasons, they're among the government agencies with the fewest number of allies on Capitol Hill; the FBI, as a counter-example, has plenty of die-hard supporters and detractors who know the agency inside and out. The Service remains an enigma.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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