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First Family's Needs Strain Secret Service
Eleven weeks into the Trump presidency, the Secret Service is grappling with how to constrain the rising costs and unexpected strain that have come with protecting a new first family as large, mobile and high-profile as any in modern American history.
To keep up, dozens of agents from New York and field offices across the country are being temporarily pulled off criminal investigations to serve two-week stints protecting members of the Trump family, including the first lady and the youngest son in Manhattan's Trump Tower.
Others, already assigned to the highly selective presidential protective division, had hoped for relief after a grueling election year. That hope has evaporated as they work more overtime hours and spend long stretches away from home because of the Trump family's far-flung travel.
And in Washington, agency leaders are already negotiating for tens of millions of dollars in supplemental funding to help offset the sky-high costs of securing Trump Tower and other high-profile family assets like Mar-a-Lago in Florida. It is a figure that will only continue to rise.
"They are flat-out worn out," said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The committee's top-ranking Democratic member, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, gave an analogy: "It's like being on a bike that you never get off of."
The assessment has become increasingly apparent as the Secret Service grapples with what amounts to an increase of 40 percent more people under its protection compared with a noncampaign year.
There are growing concerns among current and former officials in the Homeland Security Department and on Capitol Hill not only about how the Secret Service will keep up, but also what it might mean for its long-term recovery from the high attrition, low morale and spending caps that have plagued it in recent years.
"I think if you were resource rich, you'd absorb it," said Douglas A. Smith, who served as an assistant secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama. "It's not that they aren't competent enough to do the job, it's just they're stretched too thin."
Given its responsibilities and the no-failure nature of its protective mission, the agency has little option in the near term but to try to do more with less. Indeed, the agency maintains that it can weather any adversity.
"Regardless of the number of protectees or where the assignment takes us," said Catherine Milhoan, a spokeswoman for the agency, "the Secret Service remains an expeditionary law enforcement agency that continues to adapt and evolve based on the mission at hand."
It has not been without its missteps. On Wednesday, a Secret Service official confirmed an off-duty agent who was assigned to Vice President Mike Pence's security detail was arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute. The agent, who was not identified, has been suspended from duty, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm a CNN report.
The agency is down about 250 special agents and 350 administrative and technical staff members compared with its peak at the beginning of the Obama administration. Morale among employees has sunk to the lowest of any federal agency, according to government surveys. And efforts to rebuild the work force – which Mr. Chaffetz said was short by 1,000 positions – have improved, but the agency continues to struggle to keep up with attrition.
Much of the work of reversing those trends will fall to the agency's next director, who is expected to come for the first time from outside its ranks. The mandate will be to shake things up.
For now, the agency has begun to shift resources internally to make certain it can ensure the safety of its protectees – which now include a rare first lady's residence outside Washington, four adult children and a new, quite active former president and his family. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, the president's two adult sons who run the family business, have already traveled to Uruguay, Vancouver, the Dominican Republic and Dubai this year, with their Secret Service details providing full protection.
In addition to the top officials and immediate family it is required by statute to protect, the agency is also providing round-the-clock protective details to the spouses and children of Mr. Trump's adult children, as well as to several of his top aides, including Reince Priebus, H. R. McMaster and Kellyanne Conway, at the president's request. The numbers are likely to ease a tiny bit this summer, when former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife, along with Mr. Obama's eldest daughter, are expected to lose regular protection.
With so many of the new protectees living in New York, former Secret Service officials said the agency might eventually set up a fully staffed branch of the presidential protection division there, relocating agents from across the country.
For now, though, as it awaits a potential move to Washington by Mrs. Trump and Mr. Trump's youngest son, Barron, the agency has elected instead to fly agents in from around the country, as it would during a campaign or for a large security event. Doing so for a routine nonelection detail is less common and means the agency is paying for hotel rooms, transportation and living expenses – at Manhattan prices – the officials said.
The agency is also renting space inside Trump Tower for offices and temporary sleeping quarters, two officials said, though the details of the transaction have not been made public.
The New York field office appears to have been particularly hard hit. Of the dozens of agents stationed there, a third are involved in protection on a given day. That has diminished for now the kind of protective intelligence, financial crime and cybercrime cases that normally make up the bulk of their work, according to a former agency official briefed on its staffing. Such investigative work is seen within the agency as crucial to not only building agents' skills and combating crime, but also sharpening their protection abilities.
"Essentially the Secret Service is in a campaign mode all of the time right now," said James F. Tomsheck, who left the agency in 2006 after 23 years. "It will greatly degrade the quality of life for most agents in the Secret Service, because of increased travel, protracted periods of time away from family."
The Secret Service was already heavily taxed coming off a long and contentious campaign year, in which it secured about 6,000 stops on top of its normal workload. More than 1,000 agents maxed out their pay along the way, meaning that in the campaign's final months they were working overtime without pay. Congress stepped in to approve making up for some of those lost funds but has yet to appropriate the money.
In a separate effort to alleviate concerns around payment for the extra hours this year, the agency's acting director, William J. Callahan, announced in a letter on Friday that he would waive a separate cap on overtime pay for "mission essential" employees to ensure they were compensated for the large workload.
Calculating the exact financial costs of the new measures is difficult. The Secret Service is famously tight-lipped about how it spends its money to avoid the politicization of presidential protection and travel. And untold other costs are shared by states and municipalities that provide law enforcement and other resources as needed.
In addition to the $27 million it has requested for protection of Trump Tower and members of the first family in New York, first reported by The Washington Post, the agency is assessing the need for millions more for other costs, from new technology to staffing, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
New York City said it spent $300,000 a day protecting Trump Tower alone between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Protecting the building when Mr. Trump is not there costs less, from $127,000 to $145,000 a day, according to James P. O'Neill, the city's police commissioner, but that does not account for other costs to the city.
And in Palm Beach County, Fla., home to Mr. Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, the sheriff's department says it is spending $60,000 a day in overtime when the president is in town. Mr. Trump will return there this week for the sixth time since his inauguration, for a summit with President Xi Jinping of China.
The Defense Department and other agencies within the Homeland Security Department also play significant roles in transporting and protecting the president, though at what cost remains unclear. Reports being prepared by the Government Accountability Office studying the security costs associated with Mr. Trump's Florida trips are likely to shed additional light in several months.
Even as the costs mount, W. Ralph Basham, who directed the agency under President George W. Bush, said the Secret Service had no choice but to carry out its mission. He said the burden should rest on Congress to provide it increased resources for accelerated hiring, technological improvements and other security expenses.
"The question that has to be asked is, what is the alternative?" Mr. Basham said. "You can't just step back and say it costs too much to protect these people."
[Source: By Nicholas Fandos, The New York Times, Washington, 06Apr17]
|This document has been published on 07Apr17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|