Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Democrat, Republican or Independent, we should all be grateful for the Secret Service

As we enter the final week of the campaign, it's easy to be wearied by the relentless partisanship that absorbs the airwaves.

And yet, amidst the rancor of endless attack ads, there is one permanent campaign fixture from which we should take great pride- The Secret Service agents and officers working selflessly to protect our democratic process.

Certainly it would be a mistake to ignore the Service's recent prostitution scandal and its ongoing fallout. These failings are serious and need cognizant recognition as such. But having taken this scandal into account, the larger story of the Secret Service this year shouldn't be defined Colombian prostitutes and drunken antics. Instead, it should be defined by truth. The truth of long periods away from home, of endless campaign stops, of the complex and often conflicting imperatives between effective protection and effective politics, and of the ultimate work of shielding candidates against a threat spectrum of varied characters and capabilities.

Without the Secret Service, our democratic process would be subject to violent extremists and our candidates left open to intimidation or coercion. There should be little doubt, we are lucky to have the Secret Service at our candidates sides.

While most Americans respect the Secret Service, this respect rarely extends to a more than a cursory understanding of how the organization operates. As such, if the Service is to receive fair analysis going forwards, much greater attention must be given to the extraordinary skill and discretion (the two crucial facets of executive protection) which underpin the conduct of the majority of Service employees.

Let's consider the record.

With reference to professional skill, the Secret Service holds a hard earned reputation as the world's finest protective force. This reputation hasn't simply been purchased with money- though it is true that protection isn't cheap. Truly comprehensive (and thus effective) protection is a difficult, time consuming venture. Ultimately it requires aggressive training, comprehensive preparation and honing rapid reactions. While it is easy to label these measures as excessive, they are (for the most part) necessary. Assassins especially in the modern era, can take many forms. Whether facing a suicide bomber, a group of gunmen, a lone gunman, a car bomb, a chemical attack. or a combination of attacks, protecting America's national leaders is not an easy business. Further, given America's tradition of close candidate-crowd proximity and our celebrity obsessed media culture, the Secret Service confronts a protection environment far more challenging than that facing most other protective agencies.  In essence, while a campaign team wants their candidate as close to the crowd as possible, agents want the opposite. Effective navigation of the protection-politics tight rope is neither an easy nor enviable task. Yet, agents do it every day.

On the second element - discretion, the Secret Service holds another praiseworthy reputation. To ensure that protectees trust the agents assigned to them and will allow those agents to remain close by, protectees must be able to rely upon agents discretion. In this regard, it is a tribute to the Secret Service that first families including the Obamas' and the Bush family hold the agency in such high personal opinion. With the especially partisan political environment of recent years, the Service's retained reputation in this area deserves great credit. Embarrassing leaks about protectees are exceptionally rare. In addition, major agency corruption scandals involving bribery etc. are effectively non-existent. Again, while the Colombia prostitution scandal is serious, it must not be taken as a defining incident.

The Secret Service has faced a lot of bad publicity in the last year. Some deserved. However, a fair consideration of the record and the conduct of its employees paints a different picture to the standard media narrative. Standing post at campaign stops might not be glamorous work, but is integral to American democracy. That the Secret Service is able to perform its role in the most political of environments and simultaneously in the least partisan of ways, is a tribute to the men and women who form its ranks.

UPDATE - If you liked this piece, please check out my op-ed for The Guardian on politics and the protection of the first family.

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