Secret Service shake-up

U.S. Secret Service squad car in front of the White House fence.
U.S. Secret Service in front of fence and on roof of White House.

Security lapses by the United States Secret Service have recently sent the organization scrambling to reorganize and prevent similar, or more serious mistakes in the future. Israeli officials experienced with protecting dignitaries like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe that the key to successful restructuring depends more on changing the organization’s culture of responsibility and professionalism, rather than the tactics, rules of engagement and training, which are largely the same for the Secret Service and its Israeli equivalent, Shin Bet.

“Culture is all that we do which is not related to the written procedures,” said one high-level former senior Israeli security official. “Every organization is built out of people, procedures and culture. So if this is true, take out the written procedures, take out the people one by one as private individuals and try to figure out whether there is something left.”

The official said that even still, chances of security lapses cannot be eliminated.

“I think the assumption should be that it might happen everywhere,” the official said, “but since I believe we train our people similarly [to the U.S. Secret Service], [our success] is not in the way we train our people, but in the way they execute our instructions.”

Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the U.S. Secret Service after Sept. 19, when Omar Gonzalez, carrying a knife, jumped the White House fence, ran inside the front door, passed the presidential living quarters and went into the East Room where he was stopped by an off-duty agent.

Still more embarrassment for the agency came as further reports surfaced through leaks to the press that President Barack Obama, while visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, rode in an elevator with an armed security guard, who possessed a criminal record, and proceeded to take pictures of the president.

The last straw came as it was revealed that the Secret Service delayed confirming that shots fired at the White House in 2011 hit their target, when originally it was reported that all shots missed the building until the discovery of a broken window. At the time, one of the president’s daughters was in the building.

After a heated hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Sept. 29, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed their lack of confidence in her leadership, Julia Pierson, the agency’s director, resigned her position. Pierson’s post was quickly given to former special agent Joseph Clancy, who came out of retirement to act as interim director.

Pierson assumed the post in March 2013 following the resignation of Mark Sullivan, after it was reported that 11 agents cavorted with prostitutes while guarding the president at a summit in Colombia.

“It’s the culture itself and the level of tension,” the Israeli security official said. “If this is the case, then a new director, only by the fact that he’s new, can change [it].”

The official commended Pierson’s resignation, saying that when a director of such an agency steps down, he or she is sending the message to citizens that the concept of responsibility is still valid.
In Israel, the Shin Bet has a dual role: part VIP security and part anti-terrorism organization. With many of its members coming from other Israeli intelligence agencies, the anti-terrorism branch provides protective service agents on the ground with clear threat alerts for important security tasks.

A show of the Shin Bet’s meticulousness was recently demonstrated during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
Reporting on a dinner between Netanyahu and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson at a New York City restaurant, a New York Post reporter noted the 30 security personnel tagging along – closing off the block and making the restaurant’s patrons go through a metal detector.

Yet the Shin Bet is also no stranger to security failures, best demonstrated by the 1994 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli extremist.

“That was the equivalent of the JFK assassination in America, in terms of the shock waves domestically and worldwide – and the humiliation that the bodyguards experienced,” said Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, who co-authored Spies Against Armageddon, a history of Israeli security and espionage, with Israeli investigative journalist Yossi Melman. “Shin Bet veterans told me that they did not imagine that an Israeli Jew would murder his own country’s prime minister. They had, in effect, been on the lookout only for threats that Arab attackers might pose.”

Though not part of Shin Bet’s VIP security service but familiar with the agency’s operations, ex-Mossad agent Gad Shimron, said that Israeli intelligence became aware of a possible internal threat to Prime Minister Rabin after he signed the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords. It turned out not to be enough.

After the assassination, the agency went through its own upheaval which included the resignation of its director and a change in tactics.

“We dramatically changed the concept of the inner circle, what we call ‘the box,’ around the dignitary,” said the Israeli security official, adding that before Rabin’s assassination, emphasis in training was placed on how fast an agent can react to a threat and return fire.

A Shin Bet agent “was as fast as possible. From the moment he detects a threat, he would shoot the attacker and [the response time] was be measured by seconds. This was the concept, and we selected our people based on this kind of instinct, and I believe 90 percent of the training process was based on it,” said the official.

With these tactics, there was an assumption that the attacker would shoot first, which according to the official, is acceptable in active shooter situations in airports or other public places, where if a shooter hits his target, there might be few collateral casualties.

“This is not [acceptable] when you protect the prime minister or the president, because in this case, even one bullet can change the course of history. So it cannot be the concept that you build the whole system on,” said the official.

After a thorough evaluation, the agency shifted its focus when protecting dignitaries toward surrounding them with agents – preferably those who were taller and bigger than the individual they are trying to protect – so that a gunshot was more likely to hit an agent wearing a bulletproof vest.

The number of agents protecting the prime minister was also significantly increased. When surrounded by large groups of people, such as at political rallies, the agency began utilizing casually dressed agents among the crowd who looked for potential threats – often using women for the job.

“Something interesting that we found was that women have a much better capability to detect strange behavior in a potential threat than men,” said the official. “They probably don’t have the physical power [as male agents], but when it comes to detecting suspicious behavior that might lead to a potential threat, they are much better than men.”

The official also pointed out that there are structural differences between the Shin Bet and the Secret Service that might contribute to greater effectiveness by the former. In Israel, Shin Bet agents are usually much younger than their American counterparts and usually serve between five to seven years.

In the U.S. Secret Service, the older average age means that the agents can become more professional, but may lose some of their sensitivity and alertness.

Though all agree that it only takes one mistake to ruin an agency’s reputation, Raviv believes that lapses like the White House intrusion are less likely with the Shin Bet.

“Would anything so ridiculous as what happened at the White House occur at an Israeli government building – or specifically at the home of the prime minister in Jerusalem? It’s not at all likely,” he said.

“Israeli facilities have fences that are far more serious, including sensors that hightech Israeli industries developed. And, frankly, Israeli guards – part of Shin Bet – would be far more likely to open fire on an intruder.”

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@dmitriyshapiro contributed to this story.

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  1. This is a poor comparison of two completely different agencies. Had the SS killed the fence jumper the head lines would be,”Secret Service kills unarmed veteran.” Shin bet does not allow politics to interfere with their mission and are able to dictate that with their PM, while the SS supervisors must adhere to what the presidents staffs demands and lets them run the show.


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