Hard Times for the Secret Service

By Matt Daley and John Magaw

The United States Secret Service has had its share of notoriety over the past decade.  A once stellar reputation has been tarnished. Individuals and institutions that in the past would have given the Service the benefit of the doubt or readily accepted its position on an issue now display marked skepticism.  The sources of the bad ink are threefold, and each requires different corrective action. 

The most often seen problem has arisen out of misconduct by off duty employees, both in the United States and abroad.   These peccadillos have not caused serious public concern, but they damaged the reputation of the Service and that reputation is related to the cooperation the Service receives whether performing criminal investigations or protective assignments.  This issue can be addressed by clear guidance and consistent discipline, to include dismissal from the Service in the most serious cases.  

A more invidious phenomenon took the shape of active or former USSS Special Agents leaking tantalizing vignettes or writing a book concerning individuals whom they protect.  Generally, the “protectees” are important government officials or, in some cases, family members of those officials.   In a stereotypical twenty-four/seven environment, Agents often witness the mundane as well the momentous in the personal lives of protectees.   Births, weddings, tragedies, temper tantrums, marital infidelity, financial lapses, drug use and all the other traits that populate the human universe are on display.  

Agents will, of course, report serious crimes.  But otherwise, to the extent that protectees lack confidence in the discipline and integrity of Agents to safeguard information acquired in the course of their duties, they will not confide in the Agents.   Instead, they will tend to keep the Agents at a distance, thus degrading the Agents ability to perform their protective mission.  It is time to require that Secret Service personnel refrain from making uncleared comments to the media or others regarding those they protect and submit written material to the Service for prior clearance during their lifetimes.  Variations of this system have long been in place with the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and other federal government agencies, to include appropriate punishment for those who transgress. 

The current crisis is of a different order and perhaps the most serious that the Secret Service has faced since the assassination of President Kennedy.  It is important to withhold judgment until we know the full story, but some critical observations are in order.  That an agency charged with investigating cybercrimes for the US government could lose or erase messages dealing with the events of January 6th in the process of changing its phone system bespeaks exceptional incompetence or, in the worst case, criminal behavior and requires careful investigation.  

Many questions remain unanswered.  For example, what was the full range of data loss?  Did it involve a small number of personnel or the entire agency?   Was the phone migration limited to the Secret Service or did it involve all the Department of Homeland Security?  Is it true that DHS failed to notify the Secret Service that the Congress had requested certain data?  (Apart from a specific Congressional request, the Federal Records Act requires the retention of such data.)  

The DHS Inspector General appears to have lost the confidence of the Congress by delaying legally required notification of this problem to the Congress for over a year.   Moreover, he has been at daggers-drawn with the Secret Service and there are serious doubts about his ability to conduct an impartial investigation.  Under these circumstances, appointment of a Special Counsel or impartial office to conduct the investigation is warranted.

One issue that preceded the missing messages fiasco concerns the distance that the Secret Service must maintain between itself and its protectees, especially the President.  It is not unprecedented for Presidents to make requests of the 

Secret Service that are beyond its mandate or worse and thus endanger the critical non-partisan reputation of the Service.  For example, one President is believed to have ordered Secret Service Agents to discretely remove an inebriated relative from a bar on several occasions.   But on critical issues of constitutional import, the Service navigated the Watergate period with its integrity intact and with no question that it had engaged in improper conduct.   The Secret Service then had custody of the Watergate tapes; there was no suspicion that it would or did yield to Presidential pressure to make certain tapes go away.

Under President Trump, a crucial error transgressed that line.  President Trump wanted Tony Ornato, a Secret Service Agent who had previously led President Trump’s protective detail and was well known to the White House staff to replace the President’s departing Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.  That critical job is inherently political.  Ornato himself reportedly did not want the assignment but felt that he could not decline it.  James Murray, the Director of the Secret Service approved the assignment. Almost universally, active, and retired Secret Service Agents judged this to be a dreadful decision that brought the Service too near the political universe.   Director Murray who was appointed by President Trump could have said no and if necessary resigned in protest.

We will doubtless learn more about the current state of the US Secret Service as Congressional and Executive investigations proceed.  But it is worth remembering that on January 6, 2021, US Secret Service Special Agents protected both the President and the Vice President in highly unusual, difficult and dangerous circumstances while fulfilling their oath to uphold the Constitution.  That was a remarkable accomplishment.

Although most of Matt Daley’s government time was in the Foreign Service, he was a Special Agent of the US Secret Service for five years with assignments to protective operations and criminal investigations. John Magaw is a former Director of both the US Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.