What Every Security Executive Can Learn From Secret Service Failures

by Michael Nossaman

How much pain would you suffer if you had to admit publicly that your security department or company had “fallen short” of its duty due to a cascade of security lapses and failures, and was “severely damaged” as a result?

That is exactly how, in his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on November 19, 2014, Joseph P. Clancy, acting director of the U.S. Secret Service portrayed recent events that have tarnished the agency’s reputation, and exposed serious morale problems, management shortcomings, and operational ineptitude.

Straight Talk About What Happened

He said, “…that while we strive for perfection, we have, on limited occasions fallen short of that goal.”

Adding that, “Incidents of personnel misconduct and operational missteps,” have put the agency in the public spotlight and that “This has had detrimental effects on workforce morale and operational security, both with potentially dire consequences.”

Clancy used unambiguous language to describe recent security failures and their causes.

In one instance, it was a disregard of agency security protocols and practices that allowed an armed private security agent to ride in an elevator with President Obama during his visit to the Centers for Disease Control.  He described that as a “lack of due diligence by the advance team members.”  The protocol is that only a special group of agents are permitted close contact with the President when they are armed.

“Simply inexcusable” is how he described the response to the fence jumper who over-powered one agent and breached the interior of the White House.  It was an off-duty agent who just happened to be in the White House at the time of the intrusion that finally confronted and restrained the intruder.

“Unacceptable” is how he characterized that it took agents several days to discover bullet holes in the White House even after receiving reports of gunfire in the vicinity.  White House housekeeping staff first reported the damage.

Clancy was also sharply critical of Secret Service management pointing to several instances of agents deciding to go public with their complaints instead of the chain of command because communication with superiors had broken down.

On that point, he said, as reported by Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post, “I see an urgent need to reestablish what I consider,” a basic part of any good workplace, “to be able to trust your boss, that he will stand up and do the right thing.”

Clancy was complimentary of Secret Service officers, agents, and staff who, since September 11, 2001, had been tasked with additional duties, fewer people, and not enough support.  “Our workforce, even as it has decreased in recent years, has risen to meet the challenges of these growing demands.  It has not been easy for them,” he said.

He elaborated, saying that, “…[Uniform Division] UD officers and protective detail agents are experiencing leave restrictions, canceled days off, forced overtime, and the elimination of training.”

Restoring Competency

Joseph P. Clancy

He vowed to improve the situation through a series of specific measures and initiatives that he has already begun to implement.

The most ambitious is a “comprehensive, bottom-to-top assessment to determine the root cause behind any of these missteps.”  This includes town-hall style meetings with all agency personnel, and devoting considerable time on site at the White House with agents and officers.  Clancy previously served as head of President Obama’s security detail.

He said that he has directed the agency ombudsman to devise a process for employees to, “bring concerns and questions directly to the Executive Review Board (ERB) for resolution.  This process preserves the anonymity of employees, ensures concerns are being presented on a timelier basis, and includes a mechanism for communication back to the workforce on the concern and the ERB’s plan for resolving it.”

He referred to the recent lapses in security protocols such as the incident at the CDC as serious and is now in the process of producing additional instructions and “written procedures to clarify and reinforce existing policies.”

He said that due to the increased work load, training has been neglected.  In a blunt assessment, he said to one lawmaker, “When we’re not properly trained, sir, we fail.”  Presumably, additional training is also one of his corrective measures.

He considers poor morale to be a major problem that he intends to reverse.  “There is no excuse for us having a poor morale.  We’ve got great people and we’re going to let them shine,” Clancy told NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell after testifying.

Even after acknowledging serious deficiencies, Clancy assured lawmakers that agency problems could be corrected, saying, “We are confident we can restore the Secret Service to its rightful place as the most respected protective agency in the world.”

A Warning To Others

When reading about the problems of the Secret Service, It would be easy to set back and shake our head and assume there is no similarity between a government agency and a private security department or company.

You could dismiss it as just one more example of an agency mired in bureaucracy and inefficiency, and blowing through an unlimited supply of taxpayer dollars.  That would be a lost opportunity.

The reality is that the problems at the Secret Service could just as easily be those at any security business with limited resources struggling under the burden of growing client demands, unqualified middle-management, out-of-date policies and procedures, one-way communication, no ongoing training program, and low morale.

These situations are not the result of conscious decisions.  Nobody decided to screw up the agency. These problems evolved over time like a disease.  Minor symptoms are noticed, but ignored.  Eventually, the disease takes over the host and serious illness becomes evident.  Not caught in time for remedial treatment, the outcome is likely to be terminal.  In the security business, terminal can be a literal term.


•Acknowledge the problem.
•Define and describe the problem.
•Establish clear solutions.
•Act quickly to implement solutions.
•Don’t excuse poor management.
•Communication up is equal with communication down.
•Training is not a luxury or an elective activity.
•Written instructions, procedures, and protocols are the foundation of performance.
•Morale drives operational effectiveness.

Clancy’s testimony pointed to the inability for personnel to communicate their concerns to superiors, heavy workload, lack of clarity in protocols, and insufficient training as major contributors to the failures of the agency’s operational effectiveness, and low morale.

He immediately identified the problems.

He laid out a clear path and concrete steps to solve those problems.

He acted quickly; he was appointed director on October 1, 2014 and by the time he testified on November 19, he had already implemented major policy and operational changes.  That would be fast in the private sector; it’s light speed in government.

Management didn’t get a free pass.  In fact, Clancy was complimentary of rank and file and highly critical of management.  Management bears the responsibility for the success or failure of operational personnel.

He understands that communication is a dialogue and that staff must have confidence in their ability to speak out without fear of recrimination.

An experienced agent himself, he understands that in order for people to perform to expectation they need to be properly trained and given precise information about their job duties.

Finally, Clancy knows that high morale is the intangible force that incentivizes individuals and teams to function to the best of their ability.

Legendary investor Warren Buffet was once asked how he solved problems and handled crises.  “Get it right.  Get it fast.  Get it out.  Get it over.”  Clancy seems to share the same philosophy.

The problems of the Secret Service shouldn’t be viewed as just another example of government dysfunction.  No, the problems that infected that agency are common in the private sector, and for the same reasons.  Nor are these problems limited to protective services.  These same issues can affect the performance and effectiveness of any and every security enterprise.

A Predictive Checklist

Read this story again and instead of Secret Service, insert your department or company name.  Instead of Judiciary Committee, insert C-Suite executives; your boss or client.

Ask the tough questions:

  • Do you truly and factually know what the problems are in your organization and what causes them?
  • Do your personnel at all levels really have a way to communicate with you, and do they?
  • Are all expected protocols, procedures, and policies up-to-date and in written form that everyone is aware of and understands?
  • Are your managers enabling rank and file personnel or are they just task masters?
  • Are your people properly trained and equipped?
  • Are you confident morale is high?  Rate of personnel turnover is an indicator.

Joseph P. Clancy, Acting Director, U.S. Secret Service

Testimony of Joseph P.Clancy

Joseph P. Clancy bio.

Michael Nossaman is the founder of the Protective Security Council.


White House image courtesy of FreeImages.com/ yannick111

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Michael Nossaman 39 Articles
Michael Nossaman is the Protective Security Council founder.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.