By Ronald Kessler
The Secret Service has been plagued by high turnover rates because of mismanagement, a NewsMax investigation has found.
According to current and former agents, the Secret Service has senseless transfer policies that drive agents to quit before retirement and add to the government's costs. This comes at a time when, because of threats from terrorists, the need for the Secret Service has never been greater.
In particular, the agents cite numerous situations where agents are denied transfers to cities where their spouses work, while other agents are forced to transfer to those same cities. Often, the agents who want to transfer have offered to pay their own moving costs. Instead, the Secret Service pays $50,000 to $100,000 each to move agents who do not want to be transferred to those cities.
Other poor management practices stand in contrast to the way the FBI does business.
"We sign up to take a bullet, but that's not the hardest part of the job," Jessica Johnson, a former Secret Service agent, told NewsMax. "It's not anything that we normally face. The risk is there. But what makes the job very difficult is the mismanagement. If the Secret Service were better managed, you'd have a lot better workforce, a lot more people who don't quit," Johnson said.
Current and former agents say the Secret Service is oblivious to the fact that since 9/11, the private sector has been offering hefty salaries to anyone with a federal law enforcement background. For those who want to keep their government pensions, opportunities have expanded as well at other federal law enforcement agencies. Secret Service and FBI agents are prized catches.
Sacrificing Quality Agents
The FBI has taken steps to retain agents, while the Secret Service has not. In contrast to the Secret Service, after an FBI agent is with the bureau three years, unless he or she chooses to go into management, the agent can stay in the same city for the rest of his or her career. An agent going into management can stay in the same city for five years.
The Secret Service, on the other hand, typically transfers agents three to four times during a 25-year career. An agent who enters management may move five to six times. The rationale is that agents need to obtain experience in different offices, but agents say experience in one office does not translate to another office.
Decades ago, the FBI had the same policy. The bureau scrapped it because the constant moves were not necessary and led many agents to leave the bureau, wasting taxpayer dollars on moving costs and the cost of training new agents to replace those who left.
Not having to transfer as often, FBI agents can better work out living arrangements with spouses. The FBI at least tries to take into account situations where a spouse must work in a particular city, sometimes addressing these as hardship cases.
A Secret Service agent for almost 10 years, Johnson quit early this year partly because of what she called poor management practices. She said the agency is mostly run by agents who are "old school" and think everyone wants to be a Secret Service agent at any cost.
"In the old days, the Secret Service was a great gig," Johnson said. "People lined up to join. They had applications on the shelves for years. People would drop everything at the drop of a hat to get a Secret Service job. It was great pay and offered stability. Well, times have changed, but their mentality hasn't. People can go out and make a lot more money in the private sector, a lot more money on their own, for much less risk. Management's attitude is almost as though we should literally be thanking them every day we wake up and have a job."
The Secret Service did not respond to NewsMax's requests for comment or for percentage statistics on agent turnover.
Resignations on the Rise
Agents say resignations before retirement have increased substantially in recent years. In all, the Secret Service has close to 3,000 agents who protect the president and other national leaders as well as visiting foreign dignitaries. The agency also investigates crimes ranging from counterfeiting to fraud involving financial institutions, computers, telecommunications, and electronic funds transfers.
Out of around 140 agents in the Los Angeles office alone, agents say that every other month an agent quits before retirement. Nationally, an agent transfers to another federal law enforcement agency two or three times a week, one agent said. That does not include agents who leave for the private sector or retire.
The Secret Service asked an analyst, then based in Washington, to study the problem of retention and the costs associated with agent turnover. She found it was an increasingly serious problem. The cost to the government of training a new agent is at least $50,000.
"The higher-ups basically dismissed her findings, saying, ‘Oh, we don't have any kind of retention problem,'" said a current agent. "They didn't want to hear it."
"Who's going to admit there's a problem?" Johnson said. "They just want to hear that everything's fine."
Internally, the Secret Service tries to hide the actual turnover rate by counting in its statistics only agents who leave the government, rather than those who accept jobs at another federal law enforcement agency, according to agents. Those who remain with the government account for the greatest portion of the turnover.
Johnson, who is now a real estate investor, described trying to raise the issue during her exit interview.
"The supervisor who was giving me the exit interview was literally saying, ‘Tell me if there are any problems we should know about,' as he was starting to escort me out the door," Johnson said. "I said, ‘Well, yes, I'm sure you hear this a lot,' and I began to lay out examples of unnecessary burdens imposed on agents."
The supervisor became defensive.
"He started going on about how the military does more, and there are civilians who sacrifice more than we do in the service," she said.
In recent years, agents say a dismissive culture and a disregard for the need to retain agents have remained constant. They say that Secret Service directors stay for two or three years, then leave without changing the culture. Mark Sullivan, the current director, was sworn in on May 31, 2006.
Johnson said she accepts that by its very nature, a Secret Service agent's job is demanding. She was assigned to protect President Clinton, who was constantly traveling all over the world. She could hardly ever plan anything in her personal life because her schedule was his schedule.
"If you're on what we call the ROTA [travel rotation] for that month, then you could be called out at any time, with very little notice, to travel anywhere — in-country, out-of-country, to support a protective mission," she said. "So if the president was going to Timbuktu, you could get one or two day's notice before you'd fly off. It's very hard to make plans during that time. Depending on how your office does it, you could get the ROTA back to back."
If a former president dies, for example, and a protectee goes to the funeral, "Your New Year's leave is canceled because you have to go stand post," she said. "And that's something we sign up for."
Johnson is single and found prospects for marriage slim while in the Secret Service.
"It was hard enough when I just had a master's degree, my own house and a career, and then add to that a gun and a badge, and I'm traveling all over the world," she said. "Oh and by the way, were you going to transfer with me? Were you going to move around the country following my career?"
The ‘Juice' Required for Change
What Johnson and others resented was that the Secret Service ignored opportunities to lessen necessary burdens that go with the job. Secret Service upper-management simply doesn't want to be bothered with taking an agent's wishes into account, they say. Nor does the agency have an open process for listing anticipated vacancies and agents' preferences for transfers. All are kept secret. If an agent has "juice" — connections to higher-ups — he or she is bumped ahead of others, agents say.
In contrast, the FBI, which has 12,500 agents, maintains online lists of requested transfers to each field office so that agents can see who is ahead of them. FBI agents say connections play no role in transfers. Because of the open lists, if the FBI did engage in such under-the-table preferential treatment, the agents would know about it.
The fact that the Secret Service's computer program for listing agent transfer preferences and bidding on promotions is an antiquated DOS-based program symbolizes how much the Secret Service cares about agents' wishes, agents say.
Johnson said that the agency's high-handed approach and preferential treatment for those who have "juice" contribute to low morale and a high turnover rate.
"One agent wanted to take leave on Christmas, and her supervisor said, ‘Nobody gets their first holiday off; you're going to work,'" Johnson said. "She had volunteers who wanted to work her assignment during Christmas. Plenty of people who wanted the overtime. Instead, she was forced to cancel her plans to see family. The volunteers were the same grade, same pay, and same or better experience; but they weren't allowed to take her trip."
About a year ago, the Secret Service imposed limits on overtime pay and then often denied agents the opportunity to use compensatory or flex time which they had earned in lieu of overtime pay. When flex time is taken, it usually must be taken within a week. If an agent has other duties already scheduled, the agent may be forced to forfeit the flex time. After seven years, an agent based in a major city might make upwards of $110,000 a year without overtime.
The most senseless management policy has to do with transfers. Essentially, according to agents, the Secret Service moves agents around like pieces on a checkers board without regard to their wishes. The exception is when an agent has "juice." Because agents rightly feel they are being treated unfairly, that situation contributes to poor morale in the Secret Service.
After two years on the Clinton detail based in Chappaqua, N.Y., Johnson wanted to transfer back to California, where she grew up.
"All of a sudden, they said they can't transfer anyone out of New York," she said. "They said they have no one to replace me. At the same time, they're sending out an e-mail that says anyone, regardless of where you are in your career track, if you would like to go to Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, raise your hand and you're there.
So I write the little memo and I raise my hand. I jump up and down, and they tell me, ‘Oh, well, we can't replace you. So you can't go.'"
At the same time, Johnson said, agents who are her friends in the Los Angeles office were sending her copies of e-mails they were receiving from management saying they had to leave Los Angeles to go to protective details.
"A year later when I went to my management, they said, ‘Oh well, L.A.'s full. How about the New York field office?'" she said.
When the Secret Service finally agreed to transfer her to Los Angeles after three years in New York, "I find out that we were 11 bodies short in L.A. So how did we go from being full to being 11 bodies short in four months?"
In other cases, the Secret Service disregards situations where a spouse has a job in another city. Johnson and others described one situation where an agent who was based in Los Angeles began dating a doctor in Hawaii. Eventually, they married, and the agent put in for a transfer to Hawaii, where his wife had an established medical practice.
"We have an office in Hawaii, so it's easier for him to transfer than it is for her," Johnson said. "But the management we had in L.A. at the time had no ‘juice.' He was told he couldn't be transferred to Hawaii. He quit because he said his marriage was more important." About a month later, after he moved to Hawaii, he applied to return to the Secret Service. The head of the Hawaii office, who had the requisite "juice," re-hired him.
"Here you're being told you can't transfer; and the bottom line was, it was all about who your boss is," Johnson said.
In another case, an agent in Los Angeles married a doctor whose specialty made it difficult to find a position there. Finally, she obtained a job in Denver. The agent asked for a transfer to Denver and offered to pay for the move himself, which would have saved the government about $75,000 in moving costs. The agent was denied a transfer. For the past year, the agent has been flying to Denver once or twice a month to see his wife and young daughter.
"He was willing to go to an office that had serious management issues just to be near his family and pay for it himself," Johnson said. "They still said no."
Meanwhile, the service asked for volunteers to transfer to Denver. Now several other agents are being transferred to Denver at a cost to the government upwards of $100,000 each. Some have greater seniority while others do not. Agents point out that even when another agent has more seniority, the Secret Service is losing out when agents quit because the agency refuses to transfer them to a city where their spouse has a job.
"If the opening isn't available at that moment, then they can say, ‘Oh, sorry, that office is overstaffed. Here are your only options,'" a current agent said. "Then sure enough, while you're still on orders to move somewhere else, orders come out for someone else to go to the same city."
In fact, agents are often "force transferred" — meaning they have no choice except to move or quit — when other agents actually want to go to those same cities.
"There are people who literally pass each other in the air because, let's say one person is leaving Detroit and the other person is leaving Kansas, and they're both being forced to switch," Johnson said. "They're making these people pay to move to a spot where they're literally having the other person in the other city move to replace them. I mean it's just mindless."
Another example of the Secret Service's high-handed way of doing business involves an agent who was based in Washington, D.C. and is married to a Navy lawyer. When the Navy gave her orders to transfer to San Diego, the Secret Service agreed to transfer him there. But after they purchased a home near San Diego, the Secret Service told the agent his transfer orders were being changed. Instead, he was to report to the Los Angeles field office.
The agent asked to transfer to a closer office in Santa Ana, but that request was denied. He has been commuting between San Diego and Los Angeles — a two-hour drive each way — every day.
Meanwhile, Johnson said, the Secret Service has trouble finding qualified applicants to replace those who are driven away.
"Getting a number of applicants is not a problem. Getting qualified applicants is always a problem," she said. "Because of the high standard they have, a large portion of the population wouldn't qualify to be an agent. They've done various things trying to recruit good people, but the bottom line is that their policies are driving away the good people they already have."
"If this were a private company, they couldn't survive," a current Secret Service agent says. "But it's the government, and nobody's accountable. Somebody probably gets a big fat bonus because we meet our hiring goals, but nobody loses out on a bonus because we had a high attrition rate. What we need is people from outside to shake up the Secret Service."
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of NewsMax.com.View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you FREEvia e-mail. Go Here Now.