US secret service crisis: Is there someone – anyone – in control in America?

Out of America: The latest lapse by the US Secret Service, with an armed man breaking into the White House, is a sign of a deeper malaise

Rupert Cornwell
Monday 06 October 2014 12:35 BST
Secret service officer Tim McCarthy was shot after throwing himself in front of Ronald Reagan to protect the president from John Hinckley in 1981
Secret service officer Tim McCarthy was shot after throwing himself in front of Ronald Reagan to protect the president from John Hinckley in 1981 (Reuters)

Does anything work in America any more? Or, to put it another way: Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and Nicolas Cage, where are you? All of them screen personifiers of US Secret Servicemen – conscientious, supremely competent, ready to put their lives on the line to protect the president.

And yes, it happens in real life too, as when Tim McCarthy, a member of Ronald Reagan's personal security detail, hurled his body between the president and the stalker John Hinckley and took a bullet in the abdomen. Maybe McCarthy made the difference on that March day in 1981, as Reagan became the first president to be shot in office, and survive to tell the tale.

Incidentally, that near-tragedy was also a case of life as an inversion of art. Many movie stars have played secret service officers, but only one went on to become president. Code of the Secret Service (1939) featured a rising Hollywood actor: Ronald Reagan.

The film's swift descent into oblivion is no surprise. Reagan himself called it "the worst picture I ever made". If Code of the Secret Service was a lousy movie however, the current real life antics of the Secret Service make the Keystone Kops look like Sherlock Holmes.

The fuss started last month when Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran, somehow scaled the 7ft 6in fence (with spear-shaped finials) that fronts the White House residence, sprinted across the lawn and got inside the most sensitive building in the United States of America. At first, Secret Service spokesmen claimed an unarmed Gonzalez had been caught just inside the front door (prompting an initially mirthful chorus from the media: why on earth wasn't it locked?).

It soon emerged, however, that the service was being decidedly economical with the truth. In fact, Gonzalez was carrying a knife and had made it beyond the stairs leading up to the residential quarters of the First Family into East Room, site of presidential press conferences and other weighty events, before he was finally caught. The Obamas weren't at home – but the next thing you know, someone will announce that Gonzalez actually got into the Oval Office for a quick session on the hotline with Vladimir Putin.

And the blundering, it quickly transpired, was merely par for the course. What with those surly blank-faced men with ear pieces and wires sticking out of their sleeves, and agents who seal off streets and cause traffic chaos when the boss is anywhere in the vicinity, the Secret Service, uniformed or otherwise, is not the most beloved US government agency. But at least you imagined that these guys, like Eastwood, were doing their job, under-appreciated American heroes.

And few would dispute that the job is necessary. Of 44 US presidents, four have been assassinated in office, and today America's gun scourge is worse than ever. Many presidents have chafed at the security that severs them from contact with the real world. Bill Clinton once famously described the White House as: "The crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system." And long before the stifling security that grew to envelop the Bushes, Clinton and now Obama, Harry Truman lamented: "This great white jail is a hell of a place in which to be alone."

But people who run for the presidency these days should know what they're getting into. The problem, as the Gonzalez incident demonstrated, is that the jail may be impervious to break-outs, but not to break-ins. And his foray was only the most recent blot on the Secret Service's record.

You might be tempted to overlook some of its headline-making antics – the drunken revels of agents with prostitutes in Cartagena before an Obama trip to Colombia in 2012, followed by this spring's episode in Amsterdam, again on the eve of a presidential visit, when three agents were caught drinking, one of them passing out in a hotel corridor. Boys will be boys, those familiar with the macho culture of the service might say.

That, however, does not explain the incompetence that allowed two uninvited guests to gatecrash an Obama state dinner for the Indian prime minister in 2009; or the lapse that allowed an armed private security contractor, with a string of assault convictions, to share a lift with the president in Atlanta just last month.

Much of the above came to light at a Congressional grilling last week of the agency's director Julia Pierson – the first woman to hold the post, deliberately chosen after the carousing in Cartagena to show that the laddish culture would no longer be tolerated. "Mistakes were made," Ms Pierson acknowledged in finest Nixonesque fashion. The next day she was forced to resign. The only surprise was that she hadn't gone sooner.

Of course, there are mitigating factors. The agency's budget has been cut and its personnel reduced, leading to a slump in morale. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Secret Service's fall from grace has come after it was transferred from the US Treasury, of which it has historically been a branch, to the Department of Homeland Security, that bureaucratic mastodon set up after the 9/11 attacks.

But the debacle speaks to something larger. Not even Republicans blame Obama for the Secret Service's recent travails. As for White House intruders, they can surely be stopped by a higher fence, more observant guards and, yes, a locked door or two.

Rather, the affair is symptomatic of an inchoate feeling that in a country that prides itself on efficiency, no one is in control. In part, that reflects Obama's inconsistent, sometimes listless approach to governing; in part blame Congressional gridlock, and an economy whose recovery may be real, but still not apparent, six years after the 2008 crash. Then there's Ebola, and the hackers who seem to get into every bank account in the land (most recently 76 million accounts at J P Morgan Chase).

And now, the Secret Service. Clint Eastwood, where are you?

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