Secret Service report: White House needs a taller fence and more, better-trained agents

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

The Secret Service has too few agents, with too little training, assigned to patrolling a White House fence that needs to be at least 4 to 5 feet taller than it is to keep out intruders, according to a punishing report from an independent panel of experts.

The unsparing assessment, commissioned after a fence-jumper at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. got past layers of security and reached deep into the presidential mansion before being stopped, also says that the Secret Service’s next director should come from outside the troubled agency.

Here are some of the report's key findings, as laid out in an executive summary made public on the Department of Homeland Security’s web site.

 The fence around the White House  currently only 7½ feet high  needs to be taller. Much taller.

“Even an increase of four or five feet would be materially helpful,” the report notes. The experts urged the removal of horizontal bars “where climbers can easily place feet or hands.” The top of the new fence could be modified to make it harder “for most” to scale it, such as by having it curve outward. Those changes “can be made without diminishing the aesthetic beauty or historic character” of the White House.

 The Secret Service needs more agents. Many more.

The report declares that Secret Service personnel who protect the White House “work an unsustainable number of hours.” Rather than remedy the problem by better use of agents or better management of those serving, “the Service simply adds more overtime for existing personnel.”

How deep is the shortfall? The report says that the Uniformed Division needs to add at least 200 officers, while at least 85 new special agents are needed. “The Panel believes this is a first step, but likely not the last step, to ensure adequate training and personnel for the White House,” it says.

 … and better training. A lot more.

Secret Service training “has diminished far below acceptable levels,” the report warns. Previously, the presidential protective detail  the agents most frequently portrayed in Hollywood  could count on training for two weeks out of every eight. Over the whole of fiscal year 2013, “apart from firearms re-qualifications and basic career development technical requirements, the average special agent received only forty-two-hours of training,” the report said.

The Uniformed Division as a whole did 576 hours of training over the same period, the report says, noting that this amounts to “about 25 minutes for each of over 1300 Uniformed Division officers.”

Training should put agents in “conditions that replicate the physical environment in which they will operate” so that they are “intimately familiar with the space” in which they will work  implicitly suggesting that current training does not do so.

 The Secret Service should work with similar agencies from overseas.

A somewhat cryptic passage in the executive summary suggests that the Secret Service stopped working with allied nation agencies whose job roughly resembles their own  perhaps like Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency.

The Secret Service should “resume participation in international fora with comparable protective services of friendly nations,” the report proposes. “While most national protective forces do not compare to the Secret Service, those of certain nations are much more similar than they are different.”

 The Secret Service’s new director should be someone from outside the agency.

Former director Julia Pierson’s resignation Oct. 1 left a void filled by an acting director, Joseph Clancy. The report noted that many insiders believe only someone who has served inside the agency can lead it.

“The Panel appreciates the virtue of experience in the Service, but we believe that at this time in the agency's history, the need for Service experience is outweighed by what the Service needs today: dynamic leadership that can move the Service forward into a new era and drive change in the organization,” the summary says.

“Only a director from outside the Service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require,” it says.

 Discipline must be fair.

The Secret Service must “implement a disciplinary system in a consistent manner that demonstrates zero tolerance for failures that are incompatible with its zero-failure mission,” the report says. “It is clear that the rank-and-file and even very senior current and former members of the Secret Service do not have confidence that discipline is imposed in a fair and consistent manner.”

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson commended the panel for offering recommendations that are “astute, thorough and fair.” But many will be subject to congressional scrutiny, making the future of Secret Service reform uncertain.

In the meantime, visitors to the White House can watch as engineers and construction workers move the fence a few feet outward from its previous perimeter.