The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
An armed felon was allowed onto an elevator with President Barack Obama during his visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month. This was the latest in a series of recently acknowledged Secret Service missteps. Yesterday House lawmakers sharply questioned Secret Service Director Julia Pierson in a hearing that focused on how a man was able to climb the White House fence and make his way well into the first floor of the mansion. Only after the hearing was it revealed that the intruder was finally subdued by an off–duty agent who happened to be in the area. Diane and her guests discuss new questions about the agency charged with keeping our president safe.
- Representative Elijah Cummings Congressman, MD, District 07
- Carol Leonnig National staff writer, The Washington Post.
- Glenn Thrush Senior White House Reporter for POLITICO.
- Steve Atkiss Partner, Command Consulting Group former chief of staff, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Special Assistant to the President for Operations
- John Tomlinson Principal, Tomlinson Strategies former Secret Service agent
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In response to questions from Congress about the recent intrusion into the White House by a man carrying a knife, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said that it was "obvious that mistakes were made." Details of the breech and revelations about others are raising new questions about Secret Service effectiveness.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about new scrutiny of the agency, Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, Glenn Thrush of Politico, Steven Atkiss of Command Consulting Group, and John Tomlinson, also a security consultant and former Secret Service special agent. We are going to take your calls, your emails, Facebook postings and tweets during the program, but first joining us from his office on Capitol Hill, Congressman Elijah Cummings. He represents Maryland's 7th District. He's the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. And welcome to the program, Congressman Cummings.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGSIt's good to be with you.
REHMThank you. I gather that members of Congress had not been fully briefed about some other incidents that occurred with the Secret Service, Congressman.
CUMMINGSYeah, we are learning a lot of information through the press. And, Diane, one of the major problems with the IRS, I mean, with the Secret Service, as I see it, is a culture problem. You have folks who -- Secret Service agents who feel more comfortable presenting information about security and what's going on with the Secret Service to a few members of Congress than they do presenting it to their higher-ups or to Ms. Pierson, the director.
REHMWell, what do you mean by that?
CUMMINGSThat's a problem.
REHMAre they fearful of her or what do you mean?
CUMMINGSWhat we -- we've had situations where an agent, back there in 2011, who was at the White House when it was shot at, and she knew that it was shot at. And she was basically afraid to present the -- her evidence that it had been shot at. And, as a matter of fact, she either feared or she -- that there might be repercussions or she just did not believe that she would be heard. That's not good.
CUMMINGSAnd I -- as a matter of fact, I asked Director Pierson about that yesterday. And she, I mean, I didn't get the impression that she was really that upset about it. I think she was pretty disappointed. But I -- and I never got a sense of urgency from Ms. Pierson.
REHMAll right. You have heard Julia Pierson's testimony saying she takes full responsibility for all of these mishaps. Do you believe that Julie Pierson should resign?
CUMMINGSI think that we are at a point where I don't -- I am convinced that she is not the person to lead that agency. My trust has been eroded. When I came into the hearing yesterday, I came in with a very open mind, although I had heard a lot -- read a lot of things. And the more I heard, the more concerned I became about the safety of the president's family and all the other people that the Secret Service have sworn to guard. And when you asked the question, Diane, is this all her fault or that kind of thing, this stuff has been going on for a long time apparently.
CUMMINGSI mean, and it's one thing after another. You had the situation with the prostitutes in Columbia, South America. And then, of course, you had the 2011 event, where the White House is shot at and they don't even discover it for four days. And then you have this incident where Gonzalez comes into the White House. And that's another thing, when she testified before us yesterday she was asked, "Well, why didn't you mention in your report that he had a weapon that is a knife?"
CUMMINGSAnd then we were -- we asked, "Why didn't you mention that he ran around the White House," or that he just wasn't -- just got -- the report makes it appear that he just got inside the door. And so I have not heard all the type of candor that I would expect from the head of the Secret Service. And, you know, there is a trust factor here.
CUMMINGSBut last but not least, Diane, this is the thing that is most concerning, we have a situation where this is supposed to be the number one protective agency in the world, guarding the most powerful person in the world, guarding the most protected house in the world. And it appears that they are not doing a very good job. And I've just only mentioned three instances. And then we have this new incident that we just found out about yesterday, about the president being on an elevator -- and I don't know what kind of elevator it was.
CUMMINGSBut even if it was a freight elevator, there's not but so much space in an elevator -- with a man who apparently had some convictions for assault, with a gun on him and in close proximity to the president. And apparently the vetting that should have taken place, the procedures, the protocol was not addressed. And so I see a lot of issues here, but I also see a cultural -- a culture and a climate issue.
REHMNow, do you believe -- considering what you've said and what you've learned since those hearings yesterday -- that there will be enough pressure from members of Congress to have Director Pierson replaced?
CUMMINGSI think that's quite probable. I tell you, it's hard for me to feel comfortable based on what I heard yesterday. And, Diane, we're in a situation where we've got a president who is trying to address world problems like ISIS, trying to deal with all of our domestic issues and at the same time trying to deal with homegrown terrorist site right here in our own country, and a president that has been threatened significantly.
CUMMINGSYou would think that the Secret Service would be at the top its game. And I did not get that impression. The other thing that bothered me is I don't -- from everything I heard, I don't get the impression that the Secret Service plans long-range. And, in other words, using the very best of technology, making sure that we don't make remedy -- we don't solve problems just because they pop up. Some incident pops up then we solve that problem. Then we just keep…
CUMMINGS…going on, instead of really doing a good look back and saying, okay. We have got a -- we're going to be better the next time. And these are the new things that we're going to do. I don't think that they are doing that sufficiently enough either.
REHMWell, considering what you learned yesterday during the hearings, what you've learned since the hearings, will you personally call for her resignation?
CUMMINGSDiane, there you go again. I am at a point -- let me be -- let me put it like this, I have not decided, but I am not comfortable with her being in that position. I am not comfortable about the safety of the president of the United States of America. I am not comfortable. I'm going to be -- she is supposed to be talking to me in a few minutes -- right after this call as a matter of fact. And I want to hear what she has to say. But I believe…
REHMWhat do you want to hear her say?
CUMMINGS…that we're going to continue to hear about incidents taking place in the Secret Service, because I don't think the Secret Service members even trust themselves.
CUMMINGSIn other words, if you've got Secret Service members who are coming to Congress to give information, that means that there's some distrust within the organization itself. And of all organizations, this is the last one you would think would have distrust within the ranks. And by the way, when they're coming to Congress, that means that there's a morale problem also. So there's a lot. I don't know whether -- I just can't see how she could remedy all that. I asked her if she could several times. And I did not get a sufficient answer.
REHMSo what do you expect to hear from her today, that you did not hear from her yesterday?
CUMMINGSWell, the thing I expect to hear is for her to tell me whether she knew about this most recent incident in Atlanta, whether she knew about that when she testified yesterday because it was…
REHMAnd if she did?
CUMMINGS…it was the incident where that contract guard…
REHMGuy got on the elevator.
CUMMINGS…was the one -- the elevator…
CUMMINGS…with the Secret Service and the president. And this fellow was acting -- pulling out a camera and taking pictures and whatever.
CUMMINGSAnd I want to know whether she knew about that.
REHMSo what if she did?
CUMMINGSBecause I can tell you, if she did know about it I'm going to be very concerned because we asked her about any other times that she had briefed the president about his safety being compromised. And she said she had only talked to him about one incident. That implying that there was only one incident. So we'll see what -- I want to hear what she has to say about that. Once I hear what hear what her answers to that, I can answer your question about asking for her resignation more definitively.
REHMCan we call you back after you've had your conversation with her?
REHMI appreciate that, Congressman Elijah Cummings.
CUMMINGSYou're a hard interviewer, Diane.
REHMGood to talk with you, sir. Thanks a lot.
CUMMINGSGood to talk with you.
REHMAnd now joining us here in the studio as we talk about Secret Service lapses, to give them the mildest term possible, Carol Leonnig, a staff writer for the Washington Post, Glenn Thrush, senior White House reporter for Politico, Steve Atkiss. He is with Command Consulting Group, former chief of staff of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, special assistant to the President for Operations. And John Tomlinson, principal at Tomlinson Strategies , a former Secret Service agent.
REHMCarol, in your front page story in the Washington Post you give details about the man who got on the elevator that the congressman was referring to. I gather he got on when the president was already on?
MS. CAROL LEONNIGYes. The way it's been relayed to us by two people that overlap and three people have given fuller details is this, that he was a CDC-hired private security guard with the firm that does security at that building in Atlanta, and was viewed by the people shepherding the president as a security representative for the building. Stepped on with the president, not sort of mid floor because they don't open the floors when...
REHMI see. Right.
LEONNIG...they don't open the doors when the president's moving through a building...
LEONNIG...but stepped on with the president when he entered.
LEONNIGAnd the agents immediately became concerned because he was acting...
REHMHow many agents were with him?
LEONNIGSo the special agent in charge is there and a second body agent on the detail was with him. These agents reportedly became very concerned for two reasons. One, the individual was acting kind of giddy and, you know, in the service. My friends to the left can help me, but he was acting in this way that agents often refer to as losing your dignity. It's kind of, you're so excited to be with the president you start to behave very oddly. And he wasn't listening or complying with the agents' instructions to stop videotaping the president...
REHMHe was doing that with his cell phone.
LEONNIGCorrect. And that made them want to take him off the elevator and ask him some questions. So the detail continues with the president. And other protective intelligence folks start to talk to him a little bit about his behavior and then they run his name. Now, you know, you didn't ask me this but nobody should be anywhere near the president, never in arm's reach under their security protocol who has a weapon or who has a criminal history. And, you know, it's...
REHMAnd he did have a weapon.
REHMWas the weapon visible when he got on?
LEONNIGThat I don't know. It was holstered and I know that agents were surprised upon seeing it. The only reason they learned that he was armed was because when they were questioning this individual and the guard's supervisor arrived on scene, he said, you're fired. Hand over your gun.
REHMHow did you find this out?
LEONNIGThe way the Post has been finding out most of this information -- I mean, we've been writing about this story, sort of the deep morale problems and security problems and misconduct problems for two years. And we've met a lot of people who have a lot of information about that.
REHMAll right. And did Julia Pierson know about this incident?
LEONNIGAccording to our sources she did know about it and she was very concerned about it. She was also very concerned about it becoming public. She detailed a supervisory agent on the president's protective detail to stay in Atlanta and figure out what happened in the breakdown in protocols, again according to our sources.
REHMSo when she said yesterday at the hearings that she did not know of any other incidents, you knew she was not telling the truth.
LEONNIGI think that, you know, in Washington unfortunately there's always a parsing game about what is is and what is a security breach, you know. I've had -- in all fairness to her I have had a lot of different senior former and current Secret Service folks tell me that you don't tell the president and the first lady about a lot of scary stuff until it is actually, you know, a confirmed threat, unless it rises to a certain level.
LEONNIGAnd, again, my friends to the left can help me or true-squad me on that, but you really only discuss things with them that you think are a true threat. And she may have decided this was not a true threat. It was just a giddy security contractor and a protocol that really broke down pretty badly.
REHMWith a gun on him that's...
LEONNIGAnd a criminal history.
REHM...pretty serious. Steve, I gather you worked closely with Secret Service during the George W. Bush presidency. How serious do you consider these recent incidents?
MR. STEVE ATKISSWell, I think the one that we're speaking about now, as far as the elevator at the CDC, it's very common to have a local security contact who the Secret Service has been working with throughout the course of a week-long advance preparing for the visit on the elevator with them, typically operating the elevator in close proximity. Now, you know, whether he was armed or not, whether that's -- that's not very normal. You don't see that.
REHMYou use the word very normal. Do you mean not normal?
ATKISSWell, there's certainly plenty of circumstances where there are other law enforcement or security personnel that are in close proximity to the president, usually working very closely with the Secret Service who could be armed. That's not at all unusual.
REHMHave you ever seen one get on an elevator with the president...
ATKISSOh, yes. Yes, absolutely.
ATKISSI mean, I probably was in a thousand elevators with President Bush and with the Secret Service. And it would be very common to have a local security guard, somebody that was in charge, particularly at a government facility, that would be on the elevator and potentially armed as well.
REHMGlenn Thrush, I wonder what you make of all of this.
MR. GLENN THRUSHWell, what's interesting is, you know, these events that we're looking at in isolation, I think it's important for people to understand that the president and the presidency is not hermetically sealed, you know. I spent two campaigns with the president and I've covered the White House for a long period of time. There are many, many times, particularly on a campaign trail, where he's out there and he's dealing with an unswept, unvetted crowd.
MR. GLENN THRUSHThe president recently has taken some walks up Pennsylvania Avenue. These are environments that are not necessarily controllable. So I think it is important for people, while we're looking at all these lapses, and clearly there's been a breakdown at the highest levels at this agency, to understand that if you want access to your president in a democracy, there's a certain level of risk. And I've also seen private security and sometimes hotel personnel jumping into a freight elevator with the president. I mean, I think these things occur far more frequently than people realize.
LEONNIGBut those people's names have been run through a national criminal database to determine whether or not they have a risk or any criminal history.
THRUSHI'm not sure we know that. I mean, you know...
LEONNIGThey should be.
THRUSHThey should be, yeah, but I think you're dealing with -- I mean, if we subjected every interaction to the level of scrutiny, I think we would come up with a very scary picture.
REHMJohn Tomlinson, as a former Secret Service agent, is there something about the training of agents that would make them be particularly aware in this day and age about serious risks to the president?
MR. JOHN TOMLINSONCertainly if we're talking about the elevator incident. That process has been in place whereby individuals who have access, not necessarily to the president but to the location where the president is going to be or any protecting, there's a process that happens where background investigations -- or I should say background reviews are run. In this particular circumstance if, in fact, it was run and those violations of law should've come up. So that individual should not have been in proximity to the president, whether or not he was armed. So that has to be part of the review that the service is doing as we speak.
REHMSo what do you conclude? Is there a culture of laxness going on here? What do you see?
TOMLINSONI certainly hope not. Now, I retired in 2000 so when Carol speaks about morale, morale and culture are kind of intertwined, so it's important that the culture be examined. And it should be transparent. But allied with that we need to have the whole concept of morale being reviewed at the same time.
REHMAnd do you mean morale in relation to leadership or do you mean morality in the way these Secret Service agents over the last two years have behaved?
TOMLINSONNo, ma'am. I'm speaking -- of course, I'm speaking of morale from an agency that goes from the newest employee to the director.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about morality while we're at it, Carol.
LEONNIGSo, you know, a lot of people for a long, long, long time thought of the Secret Service as one of the most elite law enforcement agencies, and I shared that view. I have friends who are Secret Service agents...
REHMMy brother-in-law, my late brother-in-law was Secret Service under Eisenhower so I share that.
LEONNIGI've always been really impressed, and still to this day, very impressed by a lot of agents. But the agency took a huge hit when some folks who were on a trip to Cartagena. Their antics, the night before the president arrived, with drinking and going to strip clubs and bringing prostitutes back to the hotel led to a real public ding for the Secret Service.
LEONNIGI would like to distinguish that though. I understand what you're saying, Tom, about this. I'd like to distinguish Cartagena from the security lapses. What we're talking about now is so much more serious, the elevator, the 2011 shooting and the failure to investigate a person who wanted to hurt the president, the jumper who got through five layers, if you count them...
REHMHow could that happen?
LEONNIGRight. Cartagena was an embarrassment and a ding but in the big scheme of things, insignificant compared to what we're talking about today.
REHMSo how can anybody here explain how that gentleman got through five layers of security? Can you, I wonder, Steve?
ATKISSWell, I think it's important to keep all these events in perspective. And what has been true is that ever since Cartagena, there's been blood in the water. And the public affairs and the public perception problem has unfortunately since then spiraled out of control. And so their Director Pierson yesterday mentioned, I believe, that the Secret Service had conducted 5,000 protective assignments since the beginning of this year. We now know about two incidents that did not go perfectly.
ATKISSOne thing that is great about the Secret Service is they've always had a culture that is -- really values self inspection in learning from events and from mistakes. And so every time something happens, and I would say almost every event in every protection assignment there is something that people take away is, hey, we could've done this a little bit differently. We could've done this a little bit better. They've never been, from my perceptions, an organization that likes to bury its head in the sand and pretend that problems that are there don't exist.
REHMSteve Atkiss, a partner in Command Consulting Group, former chief of staff of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." For our listeners, Carol, can you break down for us how the security broke down at each of those five steps? I think that would be really important.
LEONNIGSo the Secret Service, again, and it has earned its elite reputation, thinks very hard about how to create excessive layers of security. If one fails, a second one won't. If a second one fails, oh, for sure a third one won't. Well, on the north lawn on September 19 at about 7:20, seven minutes after the president and his daughters took off in their helicopter, five layers of security broke down just on the outside of the house. Those layers were the counter surveillance folks who monitor the outside of the grounds and are basically on the lookout for particular people who have shown themselves to be weirdly interested in the president.
REHMHow many people are we talking about?
LEONNIGSo currently, I don't know how many on a given night, but there are 60 to 80 people assigned to that division.
LEONNIGBut on a given night I can't answer you.
LEONNIGThey literally patrol in plain clothes. And I will make it quick. The second layer is, the alarm goes off when anyone crosses that fence line, Diane. And it should alert everyone on the compound, everyone in the White House complex, intruder at alpha whatever. And in this case that alarm did go off. Uniformed division officers should've been the second layer that collared him. They couldn't catch him, they couldn't collar him.
LEONNIGThe third level is the attack dog, the beautiful Belgian Malinois that is supposed to act like a canine missile and knock down a person who's intruding and not reachable by an officer. That dog wasn't released. That's under investigation but our sources have said to us the dog wasn't released because protocol wasn't followed. Officers were giving pursuit and there were so many of them that the dog handler was afraid to let the dog go for fear the dog could not distinguish between good and bad guy and would potentially attack a good agent or officer on the grounds.
LEONNIGFourth layer, front door, there should be a guy on post every night, every day on the front door. At night at midnight they lock the door and the person goes inside. The person was not in front of that door. And if you've watched videos you've seen that officer who was supposed to be on the door sort of to the left drawing his gun and watching as Omar Gonzalez walked in. Finally the door wasn't locked. The person inside apparently was caught unaware, didn't realize that a man was about to burst through. The protocol is that that officer should've locked the door immediately upon the alarm. She didn't. I've got to take a breath. So that's the five layers on the outside.
REHMAnd who tackled Mr. Gonzalez?
LEONNIGWell, Director Pierson didn't tell members of congress when she was being asked about this and she didn't tell the media about this, but we reported during the hearing that an off-duty former counterassault agent who was on the Obama daughters protective detail was basically leaving his shift for the night. He had said goodbye, he'd safely seen the girls off to Camp David and now he was going to be allowed to call it a night. Getting his stuff happened to be in the first floor, hearing the chaos, seeing the intruder and got him in front of the Greenroom entrance.
REHMGlenn, do you want to add anything?
THRUSHI'd like to talk about other layers, and those are the layers at the top. I thought it was really interesting yesterday that the committee -- and this is a question, you know, I'd love Representative Cummings to answer as well, it was really interesting to me that there was no one represented from the highest echelons of DHS which is -- which controls the Secret Service. DHS, as you know, is a troubled agency with a multiplicity of conflicting mandates.
THRUSHThe Secret Service, since 9/11, has taken on a bunch of different roles. I want to know, what did Janet Napolitano, the former DHS secretary and Jeh Johnson, the current DHS secretary know and when did they know it.
REHMGlenn Thrush, senior White House reporter for Politico. Short break here. If we hear back from Congressman Elijah Cummings, I promise you he'll be on the air with us. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the Secret Service, the testimony given by Director Pierson before Congress yesterday and we've got lots of callers, lots of emails. Here's a question from Rob who says, "lots of discussion about effectiveness of Director Pierson. What about budget cuts foisted on the Secret Service? If the Congressman is so concerned about the safety of the president, could budget cuts be a contributing factor?"
REHMWhat do you think, former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service, John Tomlinson?
TOMLINSONWell, the sequestration that took place certainly had an impact on Secret Service as well as other government agencies. In the hearing yesterday, one of the congressmen mentioned the number of classes that had gone through, both agent classes and uniformed division classes. And there was a negative spike in those classes in '12 and '13. So clearly, the service was cut short in terms of running classes through.
TOMLINSONAnd I believe the director also mentioned that there were over 500 sworn strength below their -- I'm sorry, their authorized strength when -- most recently in 2013, '14.
REHMSo you're saying that they were 500 people short.
TOMLINSONMy recollection of what the director testified to yesterday was more than 500. Perhaps one of my colleagues here could confirm my recollection.
REHMGlenn, you also talked about the former HHS -- sorry, not HHS, but Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano. Why did you bring her into the discussion?
THRUSHWell, because she has direct responsibility for the oversight of the agency. And since we're talking about budgetary issues, again, that is a question of leadership. I've covered, as I'm sure Carol has, dozens of budget battles and leadership of specific agencies isn't merely management. It's the ability to advocate on behalf of your personnel. So if there was a belief that the agency was not able to do its protective -- perform it's protective functions, it was her responsibility to do so.
THRUSHAnd I'll put it on several other people's shoulders. This is something that falls under the bailiwick of the chief of staff. The question, I think, would also have to be asked within the West wing, were they paying sufficient attention? Jack Lew, Bill Daley, Denis McDonough, even back to Rahm Emanuel.
REHMBut don't they have a fair amount on their plate to begin with and putting the Secret Service before...
THRUSHEvery time I have interviewed chiefs of staff and they talk about their core functions, this is among the first things that they talk about.
ATKISSI can say, too, I mean, having been at another operational comment within DHS, historically, the least concern for the DHS front office has been the Secret Service. It's been perceived as being, and I think has been, a very finely tuned organization. They're having to deal with, you know, the border security crisis. They're having to deal with comprehensive immigration reform, you know, much bigger and more complicated and perceived as dysfunctional organizations, they would've been focusing their attention on those as opposed to the Secret Service.
ATKISSI think also in the budget formulation process -- and this did come up yesterday in the hearing quite extensively -- I think we all know that that's a very political process so there is an effort within the agency to define requirements, both in terms of operational resources and commensurate funding requests. But that then goes up to the department, which goes back to O&B and the White House takes their chomp and comes back and says, hey, I know you said you wanted this, but this is really all we're gonna go for with the request.
ATKISSAnd as in this case and with Customs and Border Protection and other agencies, usually the Congress is actually putting resources on top of the president's budget request.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Lameen (sp?) in Houston, Texas. Hi, you're on the air. Lameen, are you there?
LAMEENYes. Good morning, Diane. Can you hear me?
REHMCertainly can. Go right ahead, sir.
LAMEENThank you for taking my call.
LAMEENI must mention, Diane, that I am an African native and where I am from the president's mention is all the State House, not the White House. When not only is the State House where I'm from is guarded -- protected by a battalion of military personnel, it is protected by a battalion of military personnel with all kinds of weapons, including tankers and rocket launchers. When I came to the United States nearly 10 years ago and I had a chance to visit the White House the first time, I was completely stunned, Diane, by the openness of the White House to the public, the lowness of the fence and the lack of security personnel at the gate.
LAMEENAnd but then, I had never lost the conviction that this has to be one of the most protected structures in the whole entire world. Apparently, I was proven wrong by these two incidents.
LEONNIGYou know, I think that's fascinating how people view our people's house because it is, you know, something we now know you can shoot at with a rifle and hit the second floor. It is extremely open and Secret Service leaders have told me over and over again that this is a really awkward dance, a balancing act of trying to make sure the president, his family and literally the building, this sacred building, are protected while also making sure people don't think it's an emperor's castle with a moat of alligators around it.
LEONNIGAnd it's funny how that dynamic is so problematic for the Secret Service in everything they do. You know, it reared its head, actually, in the whole Salahi incident with the sort of pretender couple that got into a White House dinner. The White House staff did not want people standing in the rain and waiting. They didn't want people to feel like it was a truly, like a security screening and so these people got through in the rush of the White House to get folks through.
REHMWe have an email from Charles and perhaps either you, Steve, or you, John, can answer this. "Would officers have been justified in shooting the intruder before he gained entry?" Steve.
ATKISSYeah. It was a hot topic, obviously, at yesterday's hearing. Congressman Chaffetz was out in front in saying, look, I want you to use deadly force and I'm gonna back you up. And fortunately, later on in the conversation there were opposing views that said, well, wait a minute. I think there's maybe a little bit different balance. And that's where I think the issue really comes to a fore here is these incidents, whether you look at the one in September or going back to 2011, there are shortcomings and there are things that could be improved.
ATKISSBut I think we're taking big leaps in most of these cases and translating those to being direct threats, that things that actually posed physical harm to the president. Look at the fence-jumping incident. This guy did get through five layers. But number one, the president wasn't even in the building, so.
REHMBut so what?
ATKISSWell, so what are we talking about? I mean...
REHMI mean, we're talking about a threat to the White House, whether the president was there or not.
ATKISSWell, and I'm not saying that there's an excuse for it and I don't think anyone on the Secret Service has been saying there's an excuse for it. They're saying straight up, hey, this is unacceptable. But that's very different from saying the president's life was in danger. Look at the shooting event in 2011. What is the biggest failure that we're really looking at in that incident, was, hey, after the shooting occurred and the event was over, they didn't go up and inspect the side of the building to see...
ATKISSBut was the president's life in danger? No. Was the First Family's life in danger? No. In fact, they had anticipated the possibility that somebody could've fired a rifle at the south side of the White House and hit the building. And they had put in place extensive protective measure to prevent that from actually causing harm to the president or first family.
TOMLINSONLet me -- I'm sorry.
LEONNIGNo, no, go ahead.
TOMLINSONLet me amplify the first part of the question that the caller had. The expectation that the Secret Service has different authorities with regard to use of force, up to including deadly force, is simply not accurate. So Secret Service agents have no more authority or no less authority than other federal agents, than other law enforcement in that you have to make the threshold. You have to make the case and be able to articulate why you believed your life or the life of someone else was in imminent threat of physical danger.
REHMYou mean going over the White House fence is not sufficient evidence to shoot somebody in the foot or the leg or something like that.
TOMLINSONOkay. Well, you know, the...
REHMOr maybe the aim is not that good.
TOMLINSONYeah. The shooting in the foot, you know, that's kind of theatrics or TV. That's not what law enforcement is taught. You don't have the luxury of shooting someone in the foot. What I'm suggesting to you is that one of the reliances that the Secret Service has is that deterrent effect of uniformed officers, the deterrent effect of technological pieces of apparatus that are visible to the public.
TOMLINSONCertainly many are not. It's that piece that is intended to stop somebody from trying.
REHMBut it didn't, Carol.
LEONNIGI was just -- both of you fascinating remarks on this. I would just say I disagree that nobody was in danger and that the president wasn't in danger...
LEONNIG...in the 2011 shooting. Oscar Ortega said that he thought the president was the devil and that he was resurrected, meaning Oscar, as Jesus Christ to stop him. He was on the loose for four days. The president was in a lot of places. Nobody knew that he was a person with a bizarre interest in stopping the president and they didn't know that he had shot into the room where Sasha was staying.
LEONNIGYeah, the glass stopped it, but I think there was a serious risk there. As for the issue of shooting, I can espouse use of deadly force, but I've heard people say exactly what you said, Tom, that you've got to meet that threshold. But the problem is, if the guy had been wired with a package bomb, got in the door, he would've controlled the White House. I've had a lot of Secret Service agents tell me they've got real worry. When he crosses the threshold, maybe that's the time.
THRUSHWell, I just want to refer to another story that -- of the many that Carol has broken on this, this report that was commissioned some time ago, talking about the danger of a multiple assailant attack at various points over the fence by an organized terrorist group and how many of those recommendations that were made were not implemented. I'd love to hear information as to why those recommendations were implemented.
TOMLINSONAnd I would add, Carol, going back, when we look at the evolving threat now with ISIS and others like them, it forces -- and it should force, the dialogue to say what's a sufficient response because the men and women that had the responsibility of taking that shot have to make that decision in a split second. You know, the congress people and the people doing the review for the Secret Service have lots of time to sit down and figure out the what-ifs and the different...
REHMIf they're talking to each other. Let's go to Bruce in West Point, Virginia. Hi, you're on the air.
BRUCEThank you for taking my call.
BRUCEMaybe not entirely, but at least in part, I think we're addressing a serious deficiency in corporate culture. When you have an organization of this magnitude, there's going to be a continuous state of attrition and personnel to begin with and that's going to change progressively as time moves on. But I think we're looking at a corporate culture in a sense that's from the bottom up, it's almost impossible to change. From the top down, it's difficult, usually status quo is the way most organizations go.
BRUCEAnd the negative aspects of corporate culture usually stem from the bottom up as in bad behavior. And I think what really needs to be done here is a systemic review from somebody outside the organization, from top to bottom and bottom to top.
REHMDo you agree with that, Steve?
ATKISSYeah, and I think it's absolutely gonna happen. Both the chairman and the ranking member yesterday made it perfectly clear that was their expectation. I can't see why the Department of Homeland Security, the secretary, wouldn't want to do the same thing. It's gonna happen regardless.
REHMDoes anybody here -- well, let me just say first, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Does anybody here think that Ms. Pierson is going to keep her job?
THRUSHI do not. I mean, this is not an administration that likes to roll heads, but I think this is one of those rare circumstances where I think we're going to see some process put into place and she's going to transition gracefully to the private sector.
THRUSHThe private sector.
REHMAll right. Steve, what do you think?
ATKISSI think it's unfortunate that this is just the way that Washington works.
REHMYou're not answering my question.
ATKISSWell, I mean, she's been in this job for 18 months. I think she has done as best as she can as the first female director of the Secret Service.
REHMDo you think she'll be asked to resign?
ATKISSYeah. I think she's already being asked to resign.
REHMAll right. John Tomlinson.
TOMLINSONI'm not going to speculate yes or no, but what I will tell you is the partnership between the Secret Service and the Congress has always been strong and the council and the support by the Congress for Secret Service operations has always been there so clearly from Mr. Cumming's conversation, there's gonna be a conversation with the director.
REHMAll right. Let's go, finally, to Bill in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
BILLThank you for taking my call. This conversation seems kind of nice. We're talking about how good they were. These incidents, they can't...
REHMSir, I haven't got a whole heck of a lot of time. Can you give us your question, please?
BILLOkay. Just a comment. I think ever since John Kennedy got hurt like that, I think their reputation when down and the last caller about the public scrutiny or review, I think that was a great comment.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Has the reputation of the Secret Service lost its glow since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in your view, John Tomlinson?
TOMLINSONIn talking back to 1963, there were 300 and some agents. What has taken place between '63 and 2014 is generations of people, generations of expertise. So I would say it has not lost. But each of these incidents clearly embarrasses agents of the Secret Service, current and former.
REHMCarol, what do you think?
LEONNIGI think it's also really unfortunate that at a time when this agency has such low morale, has severe staffing shortages, has had a series of, you know, eruptions, misconduct eruptions, it now is facing its most serious challenge, whether or not it can do its core mission.
THRUSHI think this is a really excellent opportunity to overhaul and organization that's probably needed this for quite some time and thank god, I would just like to say, that we have -- none of these incidents has resulted in really serious injury to anybody.
REHMAnd Steve, to you.
ATKISSI think the Secret Service is still the model that other protection organizations around the world look to and seek to emulate. I think from an operational perspective, they're still the best in the business. There's no doubt that every since Cartagena, they've been on slide in terms of public perception.
REHMSteve Atkiss, Glenn Thrush, Carol Leonnig and John Tomlinson, thank you all so much.
TOMLINSONThank you for having us.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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