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The Secret Service within DHS: An Assessment

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Several of the recent news stories on the US Secret Service mess and Director Julia Pierson’s resignation have brought up the issue of the Secret Service’s move into DHS in 2003 as a contributing factor to its current situation. Most prominently, Ron Fournier’s new piece in the National Journal makes this argument:

They [the President and Congress] should start by undoing a Bush-era reform approved by Congress in the name of hardening U.S. defenses against terrorism. After 9/11, several Secret Service agents, including those in leadership, warned me that no good would come from plans to yank the quasi-independent agency out of the Treasury Department and fold it into the fledgling monstrosity that would come to be known as the Homeland Security Department.

A couple of paragraphs later, Fournier notes that in the Treasury Department prior to 2003, “the Secret Service’s leadership had autonomy, and its agents were encouraged to consider themselves elite.”

One initial point in response to this: in law, the Secret Service is still “quasi-independent” and has as much (if not more) autonomy within DHS than it did in the Treasury Department. Section 721 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 clarified that the Secret Service would be a “distinct entity” within the new Department of Homeland Security. This autonomy was strengthen in the 2005 law to reauthorize the Patriot Act:

The United States Secret Service shall be maintained as a distinct entity within the Department of Homeland Security and shall not be merged with any other Department function. No personnel and operational elements of the United States Secret Service shall report to an individual other than the Director of the United States Secret Service, who shall report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security without being required to report through any other official of the Department.

(Note that in the Treasury Department, the Director of the Secret Service reported (as of 2002) to the Under Secretary for Enforcement, and not directly to the Secretary of the Treasury).

From my experience, the Secret Service has fought hard to protect its distinct role and autonomy within the Department. It was very persistent in 2007 (in a bill that I was working on at the time) in working to exempt itself from a provision that gave the DHS Chief Intelligence Officer modest authority with respect to the intelligence-related offices of the major DHS operating components. (See Section 502 of this law). And in 2011, it non-concurred with numerous recommendations made by the DHS OIG in a report on its information technology management, in large part due to the fact that the recommendations would have contravened the direct statutory relationship between the Secret Service director and the Secretary.

There are certainly examples of when officials at the NAC have interfered with the Secret Service, in a way that may have undermined the latter’s autonomy within the Department. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a number of anecdotes making that point in news stories in coming days, and some of these stories will make fair points, particularly with respect to budget decisions made by DHS headquarters officials that may have hurt the Secret Service.

But it is worth keeping in mind that there are ways in which the Secret Service has benefited from being within the broader DHS. The Secret Service has developed a very productive relationship with the Department’s Science and Technology Directorate in recent years, via S&T’s APEX program, to develop new technologies that can enhance protective operations. (See page 10 of this report). The Secret Service has also had a generally productive relationship with many of the Department’s management offices in recent years, such as the Office of the Chief Information Officer, which provided expertise to address many of the issues in the aforementioned IG report.

And as DHS continues to build out its cybersecurity role, there is also the possibility (still far from realized) of enhanced collaboration on cyber analysis and operations between NPPD, ICE HSI, and the Secret Service’s investigative side that could strengthen the capabilities of all three entities.

My bottom line: while the US Secret Service’s relationship with DHS headquarters has been far from perfect over the past decade, it would be a mistake to think that a new reorganization will be a fix for the issues that have arisen in recent weeks. Instead, the Administration and Congress should focus their attention on addressing a number of smaller but harder issues, including adequacy of budgets, personnel authorities, perceived unfairness in promotion decisions among many employees, training issues, and technology challenges. And above all, they need to closely examine the cultural and organizational issues that contributed to the deception and public misinformation about the recent security incidents. That was unacceptable, and should not be tolerated in any government agency, and particularly in one with such an important role in our federal government.


1 Comment

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