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.

The privilege squabble, in fact, marks the first time the Dead President defense has failed. In Justice Department briefs and in private meetings, the Secret Service insisted that the failure to recognize the privilege: would result in "profound and predictable peril" to the president, "could mean the difference between life or death," would endanger "the integrity of our national security," etc. The appeals court rapped the agency for its scare tactics, saying it must base its conclusions "on solid facts and a realistic appraisal of the danger rather than on vague fears extrapolated beyond any foreseeable threat."

The Secret Service is not incompetent or corrupt, or even especially greedy. In fact, it is almost universally admired for its professionalism and efficiency. Even so, its ascendancy is troublesome. It has made standard--even admired--measures that ought to be intolerable in a democracy. A half-century ago, a president could drive through city streets in a normal car with a few bodyguards, and anyone could stroll up to the front door of the White House. Of course, ours is a different and more dangerous age: There are undoubtedly more and more sophisticated threats to the president than we can imagine.

But the expansion of the Secret Service has normalized a paramilitary presidency. No one blinks at: 40-car motorcades that shut down interstates and gridlock traffic, the 200-plus-strong Secret Service delegation that accompanies the president abroad, the transformation of the open White House into an impenetrable fortress. During public events, it is perfectly acceptable for Secret Service agents to approach crowd members and yank their hands out of their pockets to confirm they are not hiding weapons. It is unquestioned that the president should be chauffeured in a car that costs $1.5 million. It has become a deep inconvenience for average citizens to see their president, and a deep inconvenience for the president to see average citizens. There is something unseemly about this excessive security, and something undemocratic.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., perhaps the only lawmaker who ever criticized the Secret Service before the privilege flap, said in a 1992 Senate speech that the agency has made the "insufferable" routine. "I don't know if the agency itself is aware of how arrogant and presumptuous it has become." Two years ago, Moynihan remarked that soon, the service will "have a billion-dollar budget. And still just one president, one vice president."

It isn't that the Secret Service's precautions are definitively unnecessary. It's that no one knows whether they are necessary and no one is willing to ask. Perfection is impossible in presidential security. No matter how much we spend, the goal will always recede. A determined assassin will be able to find a way to kill the president. And the Secret Service will be able to find a way to spend more money to prevent it. (In fact, the agency seems to have found most of those ways already.)

No one wants the president assassinated. But should it be forbidden to ask if we could spend less and do less to protect him?

If you missed the link to the Backstory on the Secret Service, here it is again. Here's the, and here's the one on.

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