President Donald Trump is in more personal danger than most of us realize. And so will be his successor, whoever he or she may be.
The reason is that the U.S. Secret Service is overworked and understaffed, with agents logging grueling overtime as they routinely see their days off canceled. To make matters worse, this crucial arm of federal law enforcement is operating with technology so outdated that sensitive data are unsecured. Until recently, some agents were using radios so old that they had parts that were no longer manufactured.
Hiring has been so slow. Morale is low.
This was learned in congressional hearings last week, albeit not the ones that dominated the headlines.
The nation’s eyes and ears were on former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday as he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. And rightly so, as he all but called Trump a liar and deftly laid out the case that the president could well wind up charged with obstruction of justice.
Meanwhile, before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, the problems of the Secret Service were laid out and described as “deeply embedded” in an “insular” culture that will take years to resolve, according to an accompanying report by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security.
It’s a shame that the disturbing details were overshadowed by the Comey coverage, because the Secret Service is a high-profile and important arm of federal law enforcement, and for years its failings have been an embarrassment.
Remember when a man scaled the fence around the White House in September 2014, scampered across the lawn, sprinted through the front door and made it all the way to the doorway of the Green Room before being tackled?
Omar Gonzalez was armed with a knife that day. Luckily, he went through the East Room instead of taking the stairway that led to the living space of the family of then-President Barack Obama.
Another black eye for the Secret Service was the conduct of certain agents on the detail to protect Obama at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012. Nine agents were forced to resign or retire after hiring prostitutes while on the job.
The Secret Service’s problems are yet to be resolved. Trump was inside the White House in March when a man was able to cavort on the lawn for more than 15 minutes before being taken into custody. He had two cans of pepper spray.
Thursday’s testimony by Inspector General John Roth acknowledged the agency’s willingness to right its ship and that changes have been made to speed up hiring and to follow other recommendations for improving the agency.
An ongoing audit will look deeply into the culture of the Secret Service, trying to pinpoint why in the past agents have hesitated to report ethical and other lapses for fear of retaliation or managerial inaction. Randolph Alles, a retired Marine general, is the new director. Put in place in April, he is the first chief hired from outside the Secret Service in more than 70 years.
It will take a lot of money and time to retool the agency, and with the accession of Trump the need is more urgent than ever. His administration has burdened the Secret Service like no other. The need to secure Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and to protect the president’s adult children as they travel on government and personal business has only added to the egregious staffing problems.
Yet Trump’s 2018 proposed budget increases Secret Service funding by a paltry 1 percent, with a plan to hire 450 more agents. It won’t be enough as the agency is beset with attrition, slow hiring and low morale.
In fiscal year 2015, uniformed division officers in the White House branch worked an average of 22.9 overtime hours per pay period and were called into duty on nearly 72 percent of their scheduled days off.
Talk about a recipe for burnout. As the inspector general’s report noted, “a lack of training results in stale and degraded operational skills and could lead to incorrect or inadequate response during emergencies.”
And when it comes to protecting the president, there is no room for error.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may send e-mail to her at msanchezkcstar.com.