Reading the headline of this explosive USA Today story would lead a reasonable person to believe that the Donald Trump presidency is bankrupting the Secret Service because, as stated by Secret Service Director “Tex” Alles in the piece, "The president has a large family, and our responsibility is required in law,'' Alles said. "I can't change that. I have no flexibility.'' Yes, Director Alles is correct, the president does have a large family, and presidential travel is expensive for the U.S. taxpayer. In addition, as the USA Today piece also states:
“Overwork and constant travel have also been driving a recent exodus from the Secret Service ranks, yet without congressional intervention to provide additional funding, Alles will not even be able to pay agents for the work they have already done.
The compensation crunch is so serious that the director has begun discussions with key lawmakers to raise the combined salary and overtime cap for agents, from $160,000 per year to $187,000 for at least the duration of Trump's first term.”
But the “overtime,” “constant travel,” and “compensation crunch” problems, although very real, are not problems unique to the Trump administration. I cover this in detail in my new book, “Protecting the President,” which addresses the ongoing crises within the Secret Service.
Here’s what’s really going on. The reason the Secret Service is forced to work its agents on unsustainable overtime and travel schedules has little to do with the size of Trump’s family. The portfolio of protectees expanded dramatically after the September 11 attacks during the G.W. Bush administration, too. It also has little to do with the travel schedule. Barack Obama kept a heavy travel schedule throughout most of his presidency. It has everything to do with the Secret Service’s unsustainable, and growing, portfolio of responsibilities outside the protection sphere.
The Secret Service currently employs approximately 6,800 special agents and uniformed division officers, a number more than enough to fully staff the Secret Service’s portfolio of protectees. The real problem is that a majority of the Secret Service’s special agent personnel, agents who could relieve the protection-detail special agents of some of the workload, are not assigned to protection details.
The dirty little secret here is that many of the agents the Secret Service could use in support of its core mission, protection, are sitting in field offices, spread around the world, assigned to the investigation of federal crimes, investigations that could be easily be handled by the alphabet soup of federal agencies taxpayers are already paying for (the FBI, IRS, etc.).
But forfeiting the investigative mission of the Secret Service, and reallocating the special agent personnel to backfill protection details, is not a popular position within the management or the rank-and-file of the Secret Service. The Secret Service was founded to investigate counterfeit currency, not to protect the president. The Secret Service formally began protecting the president in 1906, years after the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and in response to public pressure to provide protection.
The agency’s workforce has an understandable attachment to its historical investigative mission. In addition, candidly, many of the agents (me included, when I was a Secret Service agent) enjoy the investigative mission. Catching bad guys is rewarding work. But without a bold, and necessary, reorganization of the alphabet soup of federal investigative agencies, the only solution to the Secret Service manpower/overtime/pay-scale/morale/attrition crisis is to abandon the investigative mission.
In an ideal world, with bold political leadership (something sorely lacking in Washington, D.C.), we would reorganize our federal law enforcement workforce into three divisions: a law enforcement agency, an intelligence agency, and a well-funded internal affairs agency with oversight of the other two.
In this ideal scenario, it would be entirely unnecessary to pay massive amounts of overtime to a small pool of people to protect the president, because the pool would be expanded to a cross-trained federal law-enforcement workforce of over 100,000 federal agents. And, when agents become “burned out” from protection duty (a common phenomenon, in my experience as an agent, due to the relentless travel and stress) they could move seamlessly back to other duties currently covered by the siloed and isolated slate of federal agencies we have now.
As for fears of a “national police force” abusing power, I believe these fears are legitimate, but largely unfounded. The “unmasking” scandal, the IRS targeting scandal, and others all happened with the current alphabet soup of federal agencies. Having a well-funded internal-affairs type of agency would be an effective backstop against abuses.
Unfortunately, there’s little political will to do what needs to be done and reorganize the federal investigative workforce. And, until that happens, if we’re serious about protecting the president and solving this ongoing, and worsening, Secret Service crisis, we must immediately stop the bleeding and move the agent workforce to protection and protection-support roles. We can’t skimp on presidential protection, and regardless of our ideological leanings, we should all be willing to evaluate bold solutions, not temporary half-measures, to solve this problem.