It is time for Treasury defenders in Congress to return the Secret Service to Treasury’s oversight.
When I served as senior adviser to the under secretary for enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Treasury from 1988 to 1998, the Secret Service was one of the proud standard bearers of the best agencies that the federal government could offer to its citizens.
It has been in decline lately because of a breakdown in leadership, morale, procedures and protocols.
As a result, the issue of who should oversee the Secret Service is on the front burner again.
Should it continue to be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, as it has for the past 11 years, or return to the Treasury Department, where it resided for 138 years?
Here is some recent history.
The 9/11 Commission, established in 2002, recommended that the Secret Service and other elements of federal law enforcement be placed in a new, massive entity, the Department of Homeland Security. Ostensibly, this meant that law enforcement decision-making could be captured in one place without the problems of competing bureaucracies.
The commission’s intent was to make the United States safer from terrorist attacks after 9/11. Despite Homeland Security’s good efforts, things haven’t worked out for the Secret Service or, it seems, for other law enforcement agencies put in that same department. It could be argued that there are more competing bureaucracies within Homeland Security than before the mergers.
Sometimes bigger isn’t better; it’s bad. Confusion can reign because of conflicting rules, internal squabbles, budget insufficiencies and overlapping jurisdictions.
Turn back the clock further. Let me give you a sample of Treasury enforcement oversight of its bureaus in the 1980s and 1990s.
One of its under secretaries for enforcement, Raymond Kelly, for whom I worked, held daily, one-hour briefings every morning at 9 a.m., right next to the White House. Kelly was also twice commissioner of the New York Police Department.
Senior agents of the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Customs Service, the IRS Criminal Division and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center attended. Each agent explained new cases or initiatives to Kelly.
He wanted to know everything of note that had happened overnight in each bureau. Other under secretaries were equally outstanding, but with different approaches to the oversight of Treasury bureaus.
Others I worked with included Salvatore R. Martoche and Peter Nunez, former U.S. attorneys with great experience. Another under secretary, Ronald K. Noble, was a distinguished law professor who now serves as Interpol secretary-general. James E. Johnson served longest, administering with an iron hand underneath a velvet glove.
Even so, in high-risk work, tragedies occurred at Treasury under the Secret Service. We remember President John Kennedy’s assassination and President Ronald Reagan’s shooting, for example. In each case, the Secret Service learned from the tragedies and handled the aftermath with professionalism.
Back to the present: Congressional leaders are considering the pros and cons of shifting Secret Service oversight and mission. Every day, news articles add to the tempo of the coming re-evaluation.
An Associated Press report of Oct. 9 noted, “Looking at the positioning of the agency, whether it should be in Treasury or be in Homeland Security, is one issue that must be taken up” as part of an independent review, said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which hosted Julia Pierson at a hearing prior to her resignation as director of the Secret Service.
A top committee Republican, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, said, “I haven’t heard anyone make a strong case that it really is working the right way” within Homeland Security.
Depending upon how it is done, it would be valuable to return the Secret Service to its historical home, Treasury. Earlier, it operated there with discretion, professionalism and sound judgment. It has to be remembered, however, that no venue is error-free.
At the appropriate time, Treasury authorities should step forward and assume the oversight that was taken away so abruptly. There are plenty of good people in the Secret Service pipeline to carry the flag of leadership within the agency.
The Secret Service should not return to Treasury as a “protection all the time” operation. Agents need regular breaks from protection. This enables them to be sharper. Other field functions such as “investigations to safeguard the nation’s infrastructure” should continue to be part of the Secret Service’s remit.
Michael D. Langan was senior adviser to the under secretary for enforcement from 1988 to 1998. He later served as a senior expert with the United Nations, dealing with the Taliban and al-Qaida.