October 24, 2020

“Wheels up, rings off”

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 1 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

“Wheels up, rings off”

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – “I salute her 30 years of distinguished service to the Secret Service and the Nation,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement, and then she was gone. After a string of embarrassing Secret Service lapses, lawmakers in both parties called for Director Julia Pierson to resign, and on Wednesday afternoon, she did just that.

Yet it’s not at all certain that recent incidents undermining the agency’s credibility are attributable to Pierson’s management and that a new leader alone could bring about the changes the agency clearly needs. Both cultural and structural problems exist.

Pierson was supposed to be a breath of fresh air in the macho culture that permeates the agency. A career employee who had done her time as a field agent, the hope was that she could lead the way as the agency’s first female director to a culture that is more professional.

President Obama tapped Pierson for director after the Cartagena scandal broke. While preparing for a presidential visit there, agents cavorted with prostitutes. One agent left his weapon behind in a woman’s hotel room. Another incident followed soon after of an agent passed out drunk in the hallway of a hotel in the Netherlands.

The Secret Service recruits young men and women, and the lifestyle of long hours and constant travel is not conducive to family life. “Wheels up, rings off” is the phrase that aptly describes the attitude as their flights departed to places domestic and foreign.

The Tailhook scandal of 1991 exposed similar behavior among Navy and Marine Corps pilots at a Las Vegas convention, after which more than a dozen admirals and almost 300 naval aviators saw their careers ended or severely damaged as a result of the Navy’s investigation.However, the comparison is inherently flawed. There is no condoning what those pilots did, but a devil-may-care attitude not taken to such extremes is typical and even conducive to the performance of one- and two-man combat missions. Theirs is an attack mentality.

Nothing the Secret Service has done is on the scale of Tailhook, but then Secret Service agents have an opposite mission. Theirs is a defense mentality, and it is defense in the extreme because they are committed to taking a bullet for the people they protect. The military asks service people to risk their lives for their country, but only the Secret Service asks its employees to intentionally sacrifice their lives if necessary because other lives are deemed more important than their own (one agent was killed and two wounded defending President Truman in 1950, and one agent was wounded protecting President Reagan in 1981). This commitment deserves our gratitude and makes it all the more important that this critical agency change its “wheels up” culture.

A structural problem also exists. Originally created in 1865 to investigate U.S. currency counterfeiting, which was widespread at the time, the agency’s mission later grew to include credit card and computer fraud. The agency was also given responsibility for domestic intelligence collection and counter-terrorism activities, but these ended in 1908 when the newly created FBI took over these tasks. The Secret Service did not start protecting presidents until 1901, in response to the assassination of President McKinley.

Today, Secret Service special officers and uniformed agents belong to the protection arm of the service, whereas, special agents perform both protective and non-protective (counterfeiting, etc.) duties. The problem is that there is no correlation between these functions, and this split personality is the agency’s primary structural dilemma, stretching resources and confusing the mission. Now that more scrutiny is being applied to this venerable agency, the case should be made that focusing strictly on protection of the president and other dignitaries should be a standalone undiluted duty.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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