The Secret Service's Real Secret

Politics and policy.
July 24 1998 3:30 AM

The Secret Service's Real Secret

It's not the president's conversations.

Last week, the federal courts accomplished something no president, congressional committee, government agency, or private organization has been able to: They said "no" to the Secret Service.

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The fight over the "protective function privilege" has raised complicated, delicate, and important questions about presidential privacy and the obligations of the Secret Service. Is the Secret Service a Praetorian Guard that can abet an imperial president in sleaze and coverup? How do we reconcile the president's privacy with law enforcement's demands? While the courts have settled the legal issue (for the moment), pundits continue to masticate these questions dutifully.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But something is being overlooked in the privilege squabble: other complicated, delicate, and even more important questions about the Secret Service. Notably: Are there any limits on the amount of money we will spend to protect the president? Is it healthy for a democracy to surround its president with a bloated paramilitary security apparatus?

The real worry about the Secret Service is not, as the privilege spat suggests, that the president has too much control over it. The real worry is that no one has control over it. The Secret Service's rise is one of the most remarkable and unremarked stories of government in the last 40 years. In an age of open and (ostensibly) frugal public administration, the Secret Service is an anomaly, an agency that operates with nearly as much secrecy as the CIA and spends almost as freely as its heart desires. How has this happened?

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A s David Greenberg chronicles in Slate's "Backstory," the Secret Service was established in 1865 to fight counterfeiting. It began guarding the president regularly in 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley, but remained a modest enterprise until John F. Kennedy's murder.

Since then, the Secret Service has experienced the kind of growth that, well, only stockholders in software companies have come to expect. In 1957, it spent $3.5 million and employed 450. This year, the Secret Service costs taxpayers about $590 million and employs more than 4,600 people--including 2,000 special agents (whose responsibilities include presidential protection) and 1,200 officers in the Uniformed Division. (Click for more details about its proliferation.)

The Secret Service is evidence of the Iron Law of Bureaucratic Growth: An agency unchecked by outside forces expands. The service asks, and it is given. For fiscal 1999, it requested $594,657,000 in federal funding (an increase of more than 5 percent over its $564 million base--it receives about $30 million more in other appropriations). The House just passed the Secret Service appropriations bill, and how much did the agency get? Exactly $594,657,000.

Congress stiffs other federal programs, but all the Secret Service's desires are fulfilled: $6 million for four armor-plated limousines, $3 million for Y2K conversion, millions to pay for extra travel expenses, $62 million to beef up White House security, including new bulletproof windows, air defenses, and 27 extra security staffers. (Not that the public can find out much about how the Secret Service spends its money: Details about how the president is protected are classified. The agency has even removed White House floor plans from the Library of Congress.)

T he Secret Service is untouchable. Congress is terrified of scrimping on it. "No one ever wants to not fully fund it," says a congressional appropriations staffer. "No one ever wants to be the one who is responsible for risk or danger to the president." Another staffer asks, "If they say it's necessary for the safety of the president, who is going to say no?" The media, too, are reluctant to criticize: The last major story to question the Secret Service appeared in the New Republic in January 1981. (Two months later, Reagan was shot.) When the Secret Service does attract notice, it tends to receive coverage best described as Protection Porn. (Click for an explanation.)

The Secret Service does not hesitate to exploit its Dead President advantage, practicing an elegant variation of "Fireman First" (a classic bureaucratic defense mechanism--when your budget is threatened, propose cutting the fire department). On the rare occasions the service is queried, it invokes the Dead President. A month after the Oklahoma City bombing, and without a hearing, the Secret Service shut Pennsylvania Avenue and surrounding streets to traffic. Washingtonians complained. The service declared it was necessary for the safety of the White House and the president. The avenue stays closed.

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