The Secrets of the Secret Service

For more than 137 years, the Secret Service has presented an image to the world of bravery, excellence, and patriotism.

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But a U.S. News investigation shows that, at a time when the stakes for the Secret Service are higher than ever, the agency is rife with problems and resistant to oversight and correction. The troubles range from alcohol abuse and misuse of government property to criminal offenses and allegations of extramarital relationships by Secret Service personnel with White House employees. In response to questions from U.S. News, the Secret Service provided a detailed, four-page letter but declined to make senior managers, including Director Brian Stafford, available for interviews. "The Secret Service takes any allegations of breaches of professional conduct seriously and has a long history of addressing such issues," wrote Assistant Director Paul Irving, who heads the Office of Government and Public Affairs. Irving acknowledged that "without question," over the past 25 years, "we have had employees who have been involved in professional misconduct and in some cases, criminal behavior."

Such incidents, current and former Secret Service personnel say, are tarnishing the image of an agency long lionized as the elite of the elite. And they have led many agents to raise questions about their organization's ability to fulfill its unique mission: protecting America's leaders. In a move scarcely known outside the agency, the Secret Service has recently begun implementing a new "protective methodology" that calls for using fewer agents and officers to cover "protectees." The plan is being viewed skeptically by some veteran agents and is at odds with the Secret Service's traditional strategy of "360-degree coverage." The agency declined to comment on any details regarding protection—citing security concerns. The change is being implemented at the same time the agency is taking on new duties by providing security at major events—more than a dozen since 1998—like the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. "Just as it has always done," Irving wrote, "the Secret Service is continuing its need for additional resources in the post-September 11th environment."

[Romney on Secret Service Scandal: 'I'd Clean House']

From its modest beginnings, the Secret Service today has grown into an $ 857 million annual operation, with a budget that has soared by 50 percent in the past five years. The Secret Service carries out its mission with a relatively small workforce, nearly 3,000 plainclothes agents and fewer than 1,000 Uniformed Division officers. The overworked and traditionally underappreciated officers are leaving in droves now, many to join the new Transportation Security Administration, created after the September 11 attacks. The service has lost 130 uniformed officers to TSA since January, according to Irving, who attributes these losses to a higher pay rate. "A large number of retired Secret Service agents now work for the Transportation Security Administration," Irving wrote, "and have been recruiting from the ranks of our agency." He says the service is hoping to increase its pay scale to prevent further attrition but concedes that more departures are inevitable. Defections in the elite corps of White House countersnipers, who stand watch on the roof of the presidential mansion, and even by K-9 officers, are further testing the agency's limits, sources say. After the TSA was created in November, so many uniformed officers began applying for jobs online from White House computers that the Secret Service blocked access, allowing officers to view application forms but not complete them. Secret Service brass refused time off for some officers to go to TSA for job interviews, according to service insiders. So one night, frustrated TSA recruiters showed up at the Secret Service Uniformed Division guard booth at the northwest gate of the White House to speak with job candidates. In a servicewide E-mail dated May 24, provided to U.S. News, Secret Service Director Stafford acknowledged the "continuous loss of personnel" due to "enormous overtime burdens." Said Stafford: "I'm well aware that the attrition rate of the Uniformed Division is at a critical level."