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Ex-Agent: Secret Service Management Should Be More Proactive


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It has been a rough couple of years for the Secret Service. In 2012, the agency charged with protecting the president suffered an embarrassing scandal in Cartagena, Colombia. A number of agents were found to have hired prostitutes ahead of the president's visit. Last March, three agents on Mr. Obama's detail in Amsterdam were sent home after a night of drinking. And more recently, a fence-jumper at the White House got past security and through the front door. The director hired to straighten out the service was forced to resign just 18 months into her new job. And then just last week, a small drone crashed onto the White House lawn raising yet more security questions. To talk more about the challenges facing the Secret Service, we're joined by Jonathan Wackrow. He was with the agency from 2001 until just this past summer. For his last five years, Mr. Wackrow was on President Obama's detail. He joins us from our studios in New York. Jon, thanks so much for being with us.

JONATHAN WACKROW: Oh, it's my pleasure.

MARTIN: So we're going to talk with you about the agency's problems. But first can you just describe what this work is like? I mean, you were on the presidential detail which is, I would imagine, the pinnacle for a Secret Service agent.

WACKROW: I was lucky enough to be selected for the president's detail. And those are some of the best years of your life but also the hardest years.

MARTIN: I mean, there is so much pressure, right? Obviously if you miss something the consequences can be dramatic.

WACKROW: Well, it's, you know, throughout the course of your day, it's periods of highs and lows. Once you get into an environment where the president is interfacing with the public - he's giving a speech, working a rope line. You really have to have your head on a swivel. You have to think like an attacker. How would they want to take advantage of this situation? That's why you don't want to look at the person in front of you, you want to look maybe three people deep when you're working a rope line. You want to look at people's hands. You want to look at their eyes. You want to look at things that, you know, stand out. Is that person wearing a winter coat in the middle of July in Los Angeles? Why are they doing that? And all of these factors come down to, you know, a split second.

MARTIN: So how have you been watching all of these different scandals, really, unfold? It must be frustrating to see the Secret Service put in the public eye in such a negative light.

WACKROW: It's gut wrenching. To be honest with you, it's hard to be on the outside now looking in.

MARTIN: The Secret Service, almost by definition, wants to stay behind the scenes, out of the news which has hardly been the case. What do you think has happened? Have these just been exceptions, or is there something systemic at play?

WACKROW: You know better than anybody that the news cycle has changed. Anything that happens now is repeated and amplified 100 times over. So you know, if someone goes over to the north fence line 10 years ago, it's a small article in a paper or a quick segment on the news. Someone goes over the fence this afternoon, it's breaking news over all the networks. It's repeated 100 times. It's on YouTube. So you can't get away from it.

MARTIN: I guess I'm still unclear as to whether or not you think the episodes that have been reported over the past couple of years - do you see these as exceptions that have been blown out of proportion because of the media attention, or do you think that there's something that needs to be addressed within the management or the culture of the agency?

WACKROW: You know, management - senior management from the director down needed to be more proactive in the way that they're dealing with the Secret Service. I mean, we've had a lot of problems for years with the way that we handle any type of situation.

MARTIN: What do you mean you've had problems for years? Problems...

WACKROW: It's come out where we've had problems with budgetary constraints, manpower constraints, dealing with our integration into homeland security. There have been a lot of issues that management has had to face, and, quite frankly, I don't - I personally do not feel that they have handled it correctly. You know, we're running the Secret Service today the same way we ran it 15 years ago and 25 years ago. We have the same structure. We have the same type of reports. And I think we probably have the same computer system. And it really is going to take somebody from the outside to come in who was not part of the problem to give a fresh set of eyes to look at, hey, who are we hiring? Are we hiring the best qualified candidates? Should we change the way that we hire?

MARTIN: Lastly, John, it does sound, though, like the agency is trying to make some changes - installing a new director. There are also reports that other top officials in management are changing. Will it help?

WACKROW: These are great first steps, but what are you replacing them with? You're replacing them with people who come from the same pool who have the same methodology. And that's what I get a little bit fearful of is that we make this grandiose, hey, we're replacing these top managers. But it's a very hierarchical organization. Are we replacing them with the best possible candidates to lead the Secret Service? And I think that, honestly, the new director has to come from the outside. It has to have, you know, some nexus to private industry and business operations and streamline the Secret Service to make it more productive.

MARTIN: Former Secret Service agent Jonathan Wackrow. He is the president of I4 Strategies which works with private companies to monitor fraud and abuse in their organizations. Thanks so much for talking with us.

WACKROW: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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