POLITICS

In history of Secret Service scandals, this one's the worst, says new book author

10/02/2014 05:40 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Secret Service faces the greatest scandal in its history, and needs to change its culture because it's endangering the life of the president, says an author who has written books about the agency.

Ronald Kessler is the journalist who two years ago broke the story for the Washington Post about agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia, and his latest book chronicles many more serious problems within the organization.

The myriad warnings in his latest book, "The First Family Detail," were published just a few weeks ago, right before the organization was roiled by security lapses and subsequent cover-ups that led to the resignation of its director Wednesday.

His book describes a number of security flaws and attempts to cover them up — not only from the public, and politicians in Congress, but from the White House itself.

It blames the lapses on an increasingly bureaucratic organizational culture where the desire to get promoted prevents people from delivering bad news to the boss.

A serious security breach at Nelson Mandela's funeral. An armed man with a criminal record riding in an elevator with President Barack Obama. The failure to notice a bullet had struck a White House window. A routine inability to screen people in crowds.

All these recent incidents may be disturbing, Kessler said in an interview. But he said nothing compares to a knife-wielding intruder hopping a fence, making it deep into the White House, and having the Secret Service later attempt to play down the incident.

"This is by far the biggest scandal — the intrusion at the White House," Kessler said.

"The agency is in a shambles, and these are the results. It's been covered up... Agents tell me it's a miracle that there has not already been an assassination, given all these issues."

Things started going wrong after 9-11, when the agency was rolled into the massive new bureaucracy at the Department of Homeland Security, Kessler said.

Out-of-shape, overworked agents are encouraged by management to falsify their own physical-fitness test scores, the book alleges, describing one overweight officer who struggles to open an armoured-car door and another who, according to colleagues, is too chubby to perform a single situp.

It accuses the agency of padding its own arrest statistics in reports to Congress, by taking credit after arriving on the scene when other agencies already have a suspect in custody.

And it says the agency routinely bends procedural rules, for a variety of reasons. Its very first page describes officers breaking protocol so that a blond-haired, soccer-mom friend of Bill Clinton's could meet with him without being logged into any official records. According to the book, her Secret Service code name was "The Energizer."

The book goes on to describe more dangerous, if less salacious, lapses, including political staffers getting into events without security badges, friends of the administration being waved through screening, and Joe Biden and Mitt Romney appearing before huge unchecked crowds — including on the field at a major-league baseball game.

The book says regular agents are encouraged to keep quiet about these kinds of things if they want a promotion. Higher-ranking agency officials don't support whistleblowers, often because they don't want to alienate valuable political contacts, it adds.

"Right now the culture is to suppress any reports of problems, or deficiencies, or even potential threats," Kessler said. "In fact, agents who do try to reform the agency are punished — they're denied promotions. It's just so bad."

The book describes the enormous security apparatus that protects the president from those 25 to 30 people per year who, it says, try to breach the White House fence.

The agency not only has 10 times more agents than in John F. Kennedy's day. It also has infrared sensors around the home, audio detectors, submachine guns, pressurized air to expel chemicals from the building, an underground backup White House, and a pack of $4,500 Belgian Malinois dogs.

While Kessler calls the scandal unprecedented, his own book makes it clear that screwups and snafus aren't exactly new.

It argues that the Secret Service actually did the right thing before the Kennedy assassination, and the Reagan shooting. It notes that the agency warned against an open-top motorcade in Dallas, and urged Kennedy to allow agents to ride on a platform in the back of his vehicle. It also says the agency warned the Reagan White House against allowing crowds to get too close as he entered and exited the Washington Hilton for a 1981 speaking engagement.

But, Kessler's book says, the politicians overruled it both times.

In one particularly eventful year, 1974-75, a helicopter managed to land on the White House lawn twice in the same day; a member of the Manson family got to within shooting distance of Gerald Ford and couldn't get the gun to fire; and another shooter who was on a top-level watch list did manage to fire at Ford, and missed.

The agency itself was born in tragedy.

Abraham Lincoln created it on April 14, 1865. The agency's original mission was to crack down on then-rampant counterfeiting. It largely accomplished its goal, and quickly, so it was given additional responsibilities, and it grew into its modern role over several decades.

Lincoln went to the theatre, hours after he signed off on the new agency.