‘Because we’ve always done it that way.”
During my 12-year tenure as a special agent with the US Secret Service, I heard those words all too often. The agency, in my experience, has an entrenched management culture resistant to change.
And it’s an agency in crisis.
As a proud former Secret Service agent, it’s tough to stand by and watch the agency struggle. But many of its problems are chronic and have only surfaced recently because they’re manifesting themselves through the intense media spotlight generated by some of the agency’s recent high-profile lapses.
I joined the Secret Service in June 1999 as a special agent and vividly remember an agency brimming with pride. The agency was part of the Treasury Department back then, and the best moment of my day was when someone would ask me, “What do you do for a living?”
However, after the 2003 transfer from Treasury to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service’s chronic problems began to grow in severity, and new problems began to emerge.
First, the Secret Service’s management culture has a strong bias toward the status quo.
The mission of the Secret Service (to keep the president of the United States safe and secure) is, by its very nature, pivotal to the proper functioning of the country, and any failure to accomplish this mission has the potential to cause an immediate international crisis.
In my estimation, it’s the gravity of this mission that feeds the stubborn, risk-averse management culture of the Secret Service.
Put yourself in a Secret Service manager’s shoes for a moment, and you can begin to understand the mentality. If a physical protection strategy, piece of security equipment or weapons system currently in use hasn’t been implicated in a security breach, but is clearly deficient, then there’s no incentive to risk your Secret Service management career by changing it.
Attaching one’s name to an untested, new path forward, even if its superiority appears evident, is dangerous to a Secret Service manager’s career because if something goes wrong with it, that manager is going to suffer the consequences.
Using the old, subpar technology or piece of equipment which has yet to fail (despite its clear deficiencies) allows the current manager to blame someone else for the failure of that technology because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
The debacle with the subpar White House fence is a clear example of this chronic risk-aversion problem in action. Long before infamous White House fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez scaled the fence on the White House North Grounds last year and made his way into the East Room of the White House, the fence’s security deficiencies were well-known.
I recall having a conversation in 1999, just weeks into my new career, with a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer who had transferred to the agent position, and was assigned to my recruit training class, about how easy it was to scale the White House fence and the many security problems it presented. Yet nothing was done to improve its security until the public pressure from the embarrassing fence-jumper incident forced management to add strategically placed spikes to the fence.
Second, after the Secret Service’s transfer to Homeland Security, I noticed this risk-averse culture work its way into the agency’s human-resources decision-making. The new, layered DHS bureaucracy forced the Secret Service into unfamiliar bureaucratic territory, making it a small fish in an enormous pond, in sharp contrast to its historical role as a big fish in the small Treasury pond.
The bureaucratic pressure from the top of this new DHS bureaucracy to prioritize, at nearly any expense, the use of a rewards system for managers to meet hiring quotas based on the DHS’s definition of “diversity,” rather than an agent candidate’s ability to keep the president safe, unquestionably put the president’s life at risk.
None of these issues are unique to the Secret Service and, in working with personnel from numerous government agencies during my time as an agent, the risk-aversion problem in particular is ubiquitous. The problem here is that the penalties for failure within the Secret Service are severe, and acute, compared to the penalties for failure within agencies such as the Department of Commerce.
As a quote attributed to an IRA bomber accurately states, “You have to be lucky every day; we have to be lucky once.” The Secret Service’s luck has run out.
Dan Bongino is a contributing editor at Conservative Review and author of the upcoming book “The Fight.”