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Behind the Secret Service's veil of secrecy

Behind the Secret Service's veil of secrecy
Behind the Secret Service's veil of secrecy 09:04

It was all there, plain to see on January 6th: the valor of the Secret Service agents protecting Vice President Mike Pence.  "The bravery is pretty amazing, when they find a way to surreptitiously leave, as people are tromping through the building, rioters, in various amounts of war gear," said Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig.

But, as Leonnig spells out in her new book about the Secret Service, "Zero Fail," there was another, darker side to the agency on display that day as well: "There are a lot of members of the Secret Service,  Presidential Protection Division, who cheer on that riot on the Capitol Grounds that day," she said.

"How do we know that?" asked correspondent Jim Axelrod.  

"In social media posts, many of these people shared their views, explaining that 'the election was rigged,' 'Donald Trump has been denied his fair and rightful second term,'" she said.

This dualism, says Leonnig – heroism on one hand, scandal on the other – has been the story of a deeply-troubled agency during the last decade.  "Time and time again, the Secret Service has chosen to cover up a problem rather than fix it," she said. "This is a great agency with unbelievable patriots, but it needs a housecleaning. It needs help."

The modern Secret Service is less than 60 years old.  Consider that in August of 1962, JFK could sneak away from his detail during a weekend in Santa Monica and go for a dip on a crowded beach.

Dallas changed everything.

Leonnig said, "JFK's death was a gut-punch to the country like no other. But if you think it was bad for the country, you have no idea how bad it was for the Secret Service. They rebuilt that agency. They made it so rigorous as a result of that tragedy."

The training and protocols of the post-Dallas Secret Service saved President Ford from not one, but two assassination attempts in 1975, and prepared Agent Tim McCarthy to take a bullet meant for President Reagan in 1981. Leonnig said, "There's no more heroic image of that than Tim McCarthy on the day, outside the Hilton when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Reagan. And Tim McCarthy, what does he do? He throws up his chest to take it."

Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy (top left) responds to shots fired at President Ronald Reagan by putting himself in the line of fire (top right). He was wounded, with one bullet in the chest, but recovered.  CBS News/AP Photo, Ron Edmonds

But critics say that urgency has been eroded by insufficient budgets ever since the Secret Service was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. 

Former Agent Jonathan Wackrow was with the Secret Service for 14 years. "The Secret Service hires phenomenal people," he told Axelrod. "They need to hire more of them.

"They're the red-headed stepchildren, right? Get them more money. Give 'em every tool to be successful. Do more with more. Don't do more with less."

From 2009 to 2014 Wackrow served on the details protecting President and Mrs. Obama, which gives him insight into another problem plaguing the Secret Service that more money can't address: a culture lacking transparency and accountability.

On November 11, 2011, a man fired a rifle at the White House, striking the building seven times.  The Obamas weren't home, but their daughters were. Despite agents reporting gunfire, Leonnig writes they were told by superiors to stand down.  Secret Service leadership initially told no one – not their agents, not the public, not even President and Mrs. Obama. 

A window in the White House bears the marks of a bullet. Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez plead guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for firing a rifle at the White House in 2014.  CBS News

"Thankfully, [it] didn't have a tragic outcome. But afterwards? Nothing," said Wackrow. "There was no, 'Hey, let's get everybody together and let's review what happened.'"

Axelrod asked, "But how could there not be?"

"The Secret Service is the best organization in the world in crisis management. Yet, they can't manage themselves," Wackrow replied. "It was an embarrassment, but you have to learn from it."

The embarrassments continued.  The next year, 12 Secret Service agents were sent home from Cartagena, Colombia, where they were doing advance work for a presidential trip. They were drunk. Some had prostitutes in their room, where agents had plans for Mr. Obama's visit – a huge security risk. 

Michael Chertoff oversaw the Secret Service as Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. He was out of government when Cartagena took place, but still found it painful.

"That was very troubling to me," he told Axelrod. "Here were agents, particularly overseas, who would put themselves in positions to being compromised, led me to really have questions about the leadership of the agency. Not only is it embarrassing to have them engaged in this kind of illicit activity, but to do it in a foreign country is really risking operational security. It did seem to me to be a wake-up call."

Another "wake-up call" would also go unanswered: Two years later, in 2014, a man with a limp wearing crocs and armed with a knife jumped a White House fence and made it all the way to the foot of the stairs leading to the private residence – an alarming and dangerous breach, with deficient follow-up.

Chertoff said, "There should be what we call a 'hotwash' after an incident like this, to see, 'What are the lessons learned?'"

Because, three years later … it happened againAnother disturbed man hopped the fence, and got to within yards of where President Trump was sleeping upstairs. 

Axelrod asked, "You have the second jumper. So, where was the hotwash?"

"Well, that's a good question," Chertoff said. "I don't know if there was a hotwash, or that they just assumed since nobody got hurt, no big deal? But, that's really tempting fate. And I think that that's a big mistake."

Leonnig said, "Many of the agents told me, 'We are succeeding by luck. We have great energy, great dedication. But we're lucky that [something tragic] hasn't happened.'"

"And luck can't be a policy?" said Axelrod.

"That's right. Absolutely."

Random House

The idea that the men and women of the Secret Service are not given the support, resources or leadership to do their jobs effectively, that the Secret Service in an agency in trouble – unwilling to examine its own issues – is an alarming set of allegations.  CBS News made multiple requests to the Secret Service to respond.  They declined our request for an interview.

Instead, they provided a statement: "The U.S. Secret Service is aware of a newly-released book which rehashes past challenges the agency overcame and evolved from. … The agency's skilled workforce is dedicated to the successful execution of its critical … missions."

Former Agent Jonathan Wackrow suggests that statement needs one more sentence: "It says, 'However, we are going to undertake a mission reassurance review.' That's what's going to make you do something better. It's the after-action."

Leonnig said, "The leadership became more frightened of letting people know how bad it was behind the curtain."

"The agency has demonstrated remarkable valor and bravery. But it hasn't demonstrated transparency?" asked Axelrod.

"No. It doesn't really like that word," she replied.

But without it, Leonnig said, the Secret Service will continue to function with a capacity inadequate to meet its mission and its duty – shielding itself with the fact, since Dallas, they've been successful in the only way that matters.

"I don't criticize the men and women who are dedicating their lives to this," Leonnig said. "And we have to be able to look closely at how they're being shortchanged, the way in which we're not really letting them be able to do their job and deliver on the promise they've made."

Axelrod said, "In your book, are you detailing the exceptions, or the rules?"

"They are symptoms of something larger going on behind the scenes," she said. "And if these failures can happen, it's just a matter of time. Shouldn't we pay attention before that happens? Shouldn't we do something before that happens?"

READ AN EXCERPT: Carol Leonnig's "Zero Fail"

For more info: 

Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: David Bhagat. 

See also: 

The Secret Service: Under fire 08:38
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