How to make President safe again

Updated 1:20 PM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
02:58 - Source: CNN
Source: Elevator breach was 'final straw'

Story highlights

Jeffrey Robinson: Man who got into White House example of a Secret Service in decline

He says Reagan-era protocols that valued close, intense protection for President failing

He says Bush's post-9/11 shift of agency from Treasury to HSA opened door to laxity

Robinson: Obama repeatedly exposed to danger. Put agency back under Treasury's oversight

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Robinson is the co-author of “Standing Next to History - An Agent’s Life in the Secret Service,” the autobiography of former United States Secret Service special agent Joseph Petro. His latest book is “BitCon – The Naked Truth About Bitcoin.” Follow him on Twitter.

CNN —  

It all comes down to this: 11 years later, the front door was unlocked.

When Oscar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence late last month, he should have been just another statistic. A mentally ill man who was doing what a handful of others do every year, get onto the White House lawn and find themselves tackled by guards or brought down by dogs or fired upon by snipers.

But this time it was different.

Jeffrey Robinson
Courtesy of Jeffrey Robinson
Jeffrey Robinson

The President and first family weren’t home, the snipers didn’t shoot. It’s still not clear where the dogs were or why there was no Uniformed Division officer at the North Portico door. But the door was unlocked and the reason why can be traced directly back to the beginning of the disintegration of protocols for what the Secret Service once did better than any other agency in the world: protect the principal.

Toward the end of the 1990s, there was turmoil in senior management, which saw new Secret Service directors come and go. There were also high-level retirements – especially Presidential Protective Division agents who had lived through March 30, 1981, the assassination attempt on President Reagan. These were men and women who knew what it was to fail.

In the wake of that incident, the Secret Service had upped the ante with new plans and a revised agenda, which had included working in closer proximity to the President, increasing the intensity in the levels of protection and paying closer attention to the minutest details. They had also learned to deal better with the presidential staff, who are always looking to break the President loose from his shackles for the sake of the next great photo opportunity.

It worked for a while.

But shortly after 9/11–11 years ago, in 2003–George W. Bush made the colossal mistake of uprooting the Secret Service from its rightful home in the Department of the Treasury, where it had been since 1865, throwing a proud tradition out the window and dropping it into the hodgepodge mess that was, and still is, the Department of Homeland Security.

It was like yanking a great old oak tree up from the roots and shoving it into the ground somewhere else. The great oak slowly began to wither. What was once a quasi-independent agency was treated like just another bureaucracy that had to defend its turf and fight for every nickel against the rest of this new and increasingly dysfunctional family. Morale suffered and so did efficiency.

You saw it in 2003, when the Bush White House staff cooked up the highly dangerous and totally unnecessary publicity stunt of landing the President on an aircraft carrier in a fixed-wing plane. That scheme ran head-first into everything the Secret Service used to stand for. The President and the staff were doing this their way.

The Secret Service is charged by Congress with protecting the life of the President; it is not his choice whether or how he is protected.

You saw it again in December 2008 at the Bush press conference in Baghdad, when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoe at the President. Bush ducked. The journalist threw his other shoe. And no agents appear anywhere near the President. In fact, the agent who suddenly showed up next to him does not grab the President and pull him away, he watches other men tackle the journalist.

By the time President Obama came along, the lack of proximity and intensity was startling. This goes beyond the phony signer at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, agents with hookers at Cartagena or drunk agents at a hotel in Holland.

This is a couple of reality show wannabes getting into the White House for a formal reception, without an invitation. This is the President at the Martin Luther King “I Have A Dream” remembrance in 2013, standing alone and exposed in the middle of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of tens of thousands of people, and there isn’t an agent within 30 feet of him.

This is the President working rope lines, with plenty of agents present, but none of them in very tight proximity, holding onto him, the way they did with Reagan. Nor are the agents intensely working the crowd – “May I see your hands, please… hands… please show me your hands…” the way they did with Reagan.

This is the President speaking from a stage with 100 people behind him, and no agents right there to grab him if something happens, with no clear exit to get him out of there if something happens, because all those people behind him will panic and run for the same exit.

This is a man jumping the White House fence with a knife, and bullets in his car, after having been on the Secret Service’s list of people already interviewed as a possible threat to the President. It’s a man with a gun riding in an elevator with the President at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is some crazy taking shots at the White House, and no one reporting it for days.

Secret Service director resigns

The Secret Service agents who protect this President are the best and brightest. They make unbelievable personal sacrifices to keep the President safe. And like him, they too have been let down. They’ve been let down by senior management. And they’ve been let down by time, because without a tradition of passing stories on to the next generation, memories fade and “the way it used to be” is eventually forgotten.

It’s time to return the Secret Service to Treasury, where it traditionally has belonged, because at Treasury, there was real oversight. It’s also time to bring into the senior ranks men and women who understand that proximity and intensity and attention to the minutest details truly matters.

These must be men and women who understand and appreciate that those who served before them protecting Ronald Reagan set the gold standard, that the gold standard is an absolute minimum, and anything less – like an unlocked door at the White House – can all too quickly look like November 22, 1963.

Opinion: Do we want a fortress White House?