The Secret Service: What’s next for the new director

Amid the recent clamor over funding the Department of Homeland Security, the president made an important announcement concerning the agency: Joseph Clancy would be appointed as head of the U.S. Secret Service. A 27-year veteran of the Secret Service, Clancy had been made interim head last October in the wake of Julia Pierson’s resignation, and his permanent appointment was something of a surprise. 

There had been bipartisan calls for an outsider to head Secret Service, someone who could examine it with a fresh perspective, and an independent panel created to examine the agency had reached the same conclusion. “The need to change, reinvigorate, and question long-held assumptions—from within the agency itself—is too critical right now for the next director to be an insider,” it argued. But according to press accounts, the president preferred to stick with someone he knew and trusted, and Clancy, who had led the president’s protective detail, fit the bill.

Clancy will have a tough job. Once considered among the preeminent protective agencies in the world, the Secret Service has suffered a number of embarrassments over the past few years. Agents have been dismissed for soliciting prostitutes; an intruder was able to scale the White House fence and enter the executive mansion, and the agency withheld information about the incident, to name a few. But in addressing these failures and the conditions that contributed to them, Clancy will have an opportunity to put the Secret Service on surer footing and begin the process of restoring its reputation. It will take time and likely be an unfinished project by the time he steps down, but it’s an important one.

Established in 1865 to investigate counterfeiting, it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that the Secret Service began protecting U.S. presidents—first part-time for President Cleveland and then full-time after the assassination of President McKinley. In the decades that followed, the agency’s protective mission expanded to the president-elect, the president’s family, former presidents, foreign diplomatic missions, and a variety of locations and facilities. The Secret Service kept its investigative mission, which also expanded over time to include credit card and computer fraud, among other things. For most of its history, the Secret Service was a part of the Treasury Department, but it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. While the agency saw its share of failures and missteps over the years, it was generally well regarded and considered effective at its missions.

The events of the past few years have taken some of the luster off the Secret Service, suggesting to many that it needs a serious overhaul, and Clancy has already taken some aggressive steps in this direction. In mid-January he forced out four assistant directors—the heads of the protection, investigative, technology, and public affairs divisions—and two others retired, meaning that six of the agency’s eight assistant directors will have been replaced. In addition to sending an important message about accountability, this created an opportunity for fresh faces in upper management.

But it’s going to take more than personnel changes to get the Secret Service where it needs to be. In the months and years to come, Clancy and his successors should consider focusing on a few key areas. Perhaps most significantly, the agency needs to increase the size of its workforce. As Christian Beckner, Deputy Director of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, has shown, over the past few years the Secret Service has seen its budget decrease—due to the impact of sequestration, the administration’s low budget request, and administrative actions by the Department of Homeland Security. These actions inhibited the growth of the Secret Service’s workforce and made it more difficult for the agency to meet its responsibilities.

Training also needs to be improved. In 2009, after Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to sneak into a White House state dinner, then-Director Mark Sullivan told the House Homeland Security Committee that training was not where it should be. Five years later, the agency still struggles with this problem. The independent panel charged to look at the Secret Service identified training as a serious challenge. It found that not only are members of the agency not getting enough training, they also aren’t getting the right kind. They need to become more familiar with the facilities they protect and how to work together to protect the White House and the president.

Finally, the Secret Service needs to do a better job of prioritizing. Limited resources are a fact of life at government agencies, and the key to success is making sure they’re allocated wisely. If there’s one thing the White House fence-jumping incident made clear, it’s that the Secret Service wasn’t doing this. A director isn’t going to be able to make every infrastructure, technological, or training improvement he wants, so he needs to choose what to focus on—and nothing is more important than the agency’s protective mission. For the Secret Service, where a failure in this would result in a national disaster, these choices are crucial. But in grappling with these tradeoffs, the new director will be able to take the steps necessary to put the agency back on course and create the Secret Service the nation—and its president—needs.