Politics & Policy

It’s No Secret

A Secret Service agent keeps watch near President Obama (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
For an illustration of how bureaucracy fails even at basic tasks, consider the Secret Service.

If you did not know much about how and why bureaucracies fail, you would expect the Secret Service to be nearly failure-proof. It is a relatively small and manageable agency, with 6,500 employees, as opposed to the FBI’s 35,000-plus. It is well funded, its budget-to-employee ratio being more than $40,000 per year more than the FBI’s. It is narrowly focused: Though it was once an all-purpose domestic-intelligence agency, its various responsibilities have over the years been off-loaded to other agencies, leaving the Secret Service with only two major areas of responsibility — personal protection and a subset of financial crimes, mainly those involving counterfeiting and large-scale fraud, especially major cyber-shenanigans. It has sweeping powers to deploy in the pursuit of its mission, and its agents enjoy enormous prestige relative to their less-exalted colleagues in law enforcement. Other than its creepy name — a democratic republic should not have a domestic agency called the “Secret Service” — it has practically everything going for it.

Except it doesn’t.

The recent failures of the Secret Service involving the protection of the president — the knife-wielding, climate-change-obsessed White House fence jumper, putting the president in an elevator with a pistol-packing felon — come on the heels of other embarrassing episodes, most notably a baker’s dozen agents being busted drunkenly frolicking with hookers in Cartagena, Colombia, where prostitutes are used as infiltrators by drug cartels. But these are not the cause of the Secret Service’s problems — they are symptoms of it.

Bureaucracies fail in their missions because political institutions inevitably — it is very nearly a law of nature — come to embrace pursuing their own parochial interests, rather than their stated missions, as their prime motive. And, like all political agencies, the Secret Service is subject to the political self-interest of the agencies to which it is subordinate, in this case the White House.

Secret Service director Julia Pierson was an affirmative-action hire, the agency’s first female chief, who was installed in the wake of the Colombian scandal for the purpose of assuaging Washington’s impression that the agency is a sexist gang of cowboys operating under a boys-will-be-boys ethic. This rankled some within the Secret Service but, more important, it elevated to a key leadership position an out-of-touch functionary whose mission seems to have been mainly political rather than operational. Secret Service agents speaking to the Washington Post complained that Pierson “hasn’t been on a protective mission in two decades,” and that “she doesn’t know anything about security planning in a post-9/11 world.”

This led to questionable decision-making on the street level — literally. When Secret Service agents wanted to close down a street near the hotel hosting Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative Israeli prime minister, Washington’s Democratic mayor protested that doing so would lead to traffic jams, and Pierson ordered that the street remain open. Washington experiences gridlock every time some second-tier nobody goes to brunch with his imperial motorcade, but, suddenly, when a powerful Democrat is involved, traffic takes priority over security for a head of state.

Agents and leaders on the ground felt alienated and belittled by their politically minded superiors. The agency’s failures were met, as the classical model of politics demands, by requests that the failed agency be given more funding.

Embarrassed by Omar Gonzalez, the fence-jumper, the Secret Service pretty clearly lied about the details of the episode in press releases and court documents. The president expressed his full confidence in the director, and then out the door she went. The next step, inevitably, will be a “top-to-bottom review” of the agency’s practices.

The branch of economic analysis known as “public choice” is based on the idea that people do not cease being self-interested actors once they are elected to public office or appointed to a government position. If you have any doubt about the validity of that insight, consider that Pierson’s predecessor, Mark Sullivan, pulled Secret Service agents off a White House patrol in order to have them protect his personal assistant, who was involved in a dispute with a neighbor. That neighbor was not Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Given access to the best people in the field, ample funding, sweeping powers, and a relatively well-focused mission, the Secret Service repeatedly fails, literally falling down drunk on the job. (What happens in Amsterdam . . . )

Question to ponder: How good a job do you think that large, sprawling agencies, staffed with second- and third-rate representatives of their various fields, are going to manage to do when it comes to extraordinarily complex jobs such as regulating financial markets or trying to determine the “right” price for certain medical services? In the context of bureaucracy, even the best of the best often isn’t very good.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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