Don't fall for Secret Service nostalgia

The Service needs to go forward, not back

Secret Service
(Image credit: (Bettmann/CORBIS))

With Secret Service Director Julia Pierson out, and the Joe Clancy interregnum upon us, there will be a lot of calls for the Secret Service to go back to the way things were. Back when the Secret Service had a sterling reputation. Back when, apparently, no one ever cut corners. No one ever hid discipline problems. When presidential events were secured airtight. A time when the Secret Service brooked no compromise. When it was independent enough to do its job without a big bureaucracy to interfere. When Secret Service agents looked like Secret Service agents.

This is a past that does not exist.

It is simply not true that there was no foul-ups during the Reagan administration, the two Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration. Now, morale might have been higher. And that's crucial. Pride is the glue that bonds details together and helps the agency do its job well. But relatively high morale was not universal. Where it was higher, it was higher because the Secret Service excluded itself from modernity.

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Modernity here means radios that operate seamlessly with the White House Communication Agency as much as it means an agency that accepts women and gays and promotes minorities fairly.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when, if you were a police officer or a soldier, you probably would not make it through the pre-agent screening process.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when women rarely ascended to GS-15 rank; when fraternization between special agents and White House staffers was common; when, because of its special status in the Department of the Treasury, inspectors general had to pull teeth to get access to the Secret Service.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Secret Service operated imperiously and did not emphasize interagency partnerships.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past that it was inconceivable for a woman to become director.

Today, calls to make the president safe again are silly. The president is safer than he's ever been. The size of the President's Protection Division is larger than ever. The technology, even though it's out of date, is better than ever. Protective methodology is not flawless but it is much more efficient, and it's much more complicated than it's ever been. The counter-measures the Secret Service uses to prevent all types of attacks, to repel coordinates assaults, to move the president away from danger — all of these are the best in the world.

It could be a lot better. There might be reasons why all these protocols and practices don't work as well as they should have. To say, though, that they worked better in the past ignores what the past really was like.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.