The U.S. Secret Service is a storied agency responsible for protecting the president and vice president as well as their families and other dignitaries, but a series of scandals and shortfalls dating back more than a decade have scarred the agency's reputation and laid bare vulnerabilities that have threatened to undercut its mission.
Through a series of directors and presidential administrations, the service has failed to meet staffing and training goals, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded earlier this year, and still is pushing to finish construction of a taller fence around the White House recommended more than seven years ago.
The agency is drawing scrutiny once again after suspects impersonating federal law enforcement officers allegedly duped Secret Service agents and cozied up to them with free apartments and other gifts, a vulnerability that has at least one former official "aghast."
Secret Service worries: Ex-officials worried by troubling Secret Service case as agency struggles with hiring, training
Before that, there was a prostitution scandal in Colombia, a fence-jumper who made his way inside the White House and uninvited guests who snuck into a state dinner. But the agency also has new leadership and has implemented a number of policy changes.
Here's a look back at how we got here:
White House party-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi got through two Secret Service security checkpoints to attend a state dinner at the White House for India’s prime minister, triggering a national uproar and concerns about security.
A man opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle from outside the White House, striking the walls and a window of the first family’s residence. But a Secret Service supervisor told officers who heard the gunfire to stand down. The agency didn’t properly investigate the shooting until days later, the Washington Post reported, when a housekeeper found broken glass. The man, then 23-year-old Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho, was later sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In another incident, top Secret Service officials, on the premise that “you look after your people,” diverted personnel to monitor a fellow employee’s neighborhood dispute at the expense of presidential protection, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found. For five days, agents assigned to protective intelligence at the White House were sent to the employee’s residence in Maryland, 50 minutes’ drive away, a “serious lapse in judgment," the inspector general concluded.
Thirteen Secret Service officers and agents were implicated in a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, ahead of President Barack Obama’s arrival at a summit there. They brought sex workers back to their hotel after a night of partying and drinking. The incident became public after an agent refused to pay one of the workers and had an argument in the hallway. Three of the Secret Service members returned to duty, six resigned or retired and four had their security clearances revoked and were removed, according to a 2013 inspector general report.
In other incidents, a Secret Service officer was arrested after he was found passed out on a Miami sidewalk at 7 a.m., and an agent left his gun in the bathroom of then presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign plane, where a reporter found it. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against the officer in Miami, according to the local CBS affiliate.
'Quite serious': Secret Service agents 'compromised' by imposters, prosecutors say
Two Secret Service supervisors were axed from Obama’s security detail after alleged misconduct with women, the Post reported. One left a bullet in a hotel room after a night of drinking, and both had sent “sexually suggestive” emails to an agent in their unit.
Three Secret Service agents were sent home from the Netherlands after an episode of heavy drinking – one was found passed out in a hallway. In a separate incident, a security contractor armed with a gun was allowed on an elevator with Obama during a trip to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
A man armed with a knife scaled the White House fence, sprinted across the lawn, barreled through an unlocked front door, and made it deep inside the East Room before being apprehended. Pierson resigned as director, Obama installed a new leader, Joseph Clancy, and DHS convened an outside panel to investigate the agency.
The panel concluded the Secret Service was “starved for leadership” and stretched beyond its limits. The review recommended more training for agents and officers and a new, more secure fence at the White House.
Two senior Secret Service agents crashed a government car into a barrier at the White House after a night of drinking. They had racked up a “significant” bar tab at a retirement party for a colleague, the inspector general found. One of the agents announced his retirement before the conclusion of the investigation, while the other was placed on administrative leave.
In other incidents, investigators found two Secret Service officers asleep at their posts, and another officer was nabbed in a child-sex sting after he is caught during online chats sending a picture of his genitals to an undercover detective posing as a 14-year-old girl. The chats spanned two months and occurred while he was working at the White House. The officer was fired, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Secret Service experienced one of the most demanding periods in its history, vetting more than three million people during the presidential campaign and conventions.
At the same time, efforts to hire more agents were complicated by a large number of candidates who didn't measure up – including because of an uptick in job seekers' use of prescription drugs such as the amphetamine Adderall. Out of 27,000 potential candidates the prior year, only 300 were offered jobs.
The unrelenting pace of work for the Secret Service barely let up with the Trump administration having an unprecedented 42 protectees, including 18 family members – up from 31 during the Obama administration. By August, more than 1,000 agents had maxxed out on overtime that was meant to last the entire year, leaving many agents working for free. Congress eventually passed legislation lifting caps on overtime.
In March 2017, a man climbed three different fences and wandered around the White House grounds for more than 15 minutes before being detained. The man, a 27-year-old from Milpitas, California, later pleaded guilty to knowingly entering restricted grounds, the Post reported, and he was ordered to stay away from the White House.
Agents took pictures with one of Donald Trump Jr’s children while the child was sleeping, the Post’s Carol Leonnig reported in her book “Zero Fail.” An agent dated his former wife, Vanessa Trump, and another got “inappropriately close” to President Trump’s daughter Tiffany. The agents were not disciplined, Leonnig wrote. Vanessa Trump wasn't a protectee at the time of the relationship, and the agent guarding Tiffany Trump denied anything inappropriate happened and relocated to a field office.
A Chinese national was allowed through a Secret Service checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago and wasn’t stopped until reaching the club’s front desk. The individual, Yujing Zhang, was caught with a cache of electronics including a malware-infected thumb drive. Zhang was later sentenced to eight months in prison.
Within a week, President Trump ousted the director of the Secret Service, Randolph "Tex" Alles, as part of a leadership purge at DHS that an agency official said was unrelated to the security breach at Mar-a-Lago.
Secret Service officers joined other law enforcement personnel in clearing protestors from Lafayette Square outside the White House before a presidential photo op at a nearby church. The agency said one of its officers used pepper spray on protestors. As part of a settlement agreement, the Secret Service agreed to revamp use-of-force policies.
Shortly after Election Day, more than 100 Secret Service officers were infected or quarantined amid a COVID-19 outbreak. President Trump continued large rallies and White House events during the pandemic and had agents drive him around while he was infected.
Four Secret Service members were placed on leave after prosecutors said they were duped by two suspects impersonating federal agents. The suspects cozied up to the officers and agents with gifts and rent-free apartments in a scheme that remains under investigation, authorities said.
The revelations came three months after the GAO issued its report concluding that the Secret Service still has not fully implemented recommendations from the outside panel in 2014. The agency hasn’t met training and staffing goals and only three of eight sections of a new, taller White House fence were finished as of 2021
Two Secret Service employees were sent home from South Korea and placed on administrative leave after an off-duty incident ahead of a trip by President Joe Biden. Agency spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told USA TODAY the incident involved “potential policy violations” but did not impact the president’s trip. Citing anonymous sources, ABC News and Fox News reported the agents had been drinking and one got into an altercation with a taxi driver. Secret Service policy prohibits drinking within 10 hours of reporting for duty.
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