Opinion | National Security

Leave the Secret Service in Homeland Security

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

With the support of the Trump Administration, legislation has been offered to transfer the U.S. Secret Service out of the Department of Homeland Security and back to the Treasury Department.

Put simply, this is a bad idea. It appears to be motivated by the politics of the moment. Over the last 40 months, as the Trump Administration has used the Department of Homeland Security to hammer its aggressive immigration agenda, DHS has become radioactive and unpopular in the eyes of many, and it has gone through management upheaval and five cabinet secretaries. Some have called for DHS to be abolished altogether. In the current environment, it is no surprise the Secret Service wants to bolt for the exits.

But it is also important to take the long view. The Secret Service is the finest protection agency in the world. We both know this as the Secret Service's cabinet-level oversight, and because we were ourselves both protectees of the Secret Service. We know also that the Secret Service is the one agency of government that cannot afford a single failure. It is under constant stress and pressure to be perfect while continually plagued by underfunding, low morale, recruitment and retention challenges. In 2015 a blue-ribbon panel of independent experts took a hard and comprehensive look at the Secret Service. They identified all these same problems, which existed both before and after the Secret Service was transferred from Treasury to DHS in 2003, and made a number of good recommendations. Moving the Secret Service back to Treasury was not one of them.

The most honest answer to the Secret Service's problems - wherever it resides - is sustained cabinet-level, presidential and congressional oversight that is committed to consistent funding and supporting the agency's critical missions. Long term, that is most likely to occur if the Secret Service is part of Homeland Security, not Treasury.

As a general matter, it's never a good idea for a cabinet-level department to include a component with an ancillary mission. The primary missions of the Secret Service are the protection of the president and other national leaders, organizing the security of major federal public events, and the law enforcement mission to investigate financial and cybercrimes. These are security and law enforcement missions peripheral to the economic core mission of the Treasury Department. Though the structure of DHS is far from perfect, its core mission is security, and it has the largest collection of federal law enforcement officers within any one department.

The decision whether to give a presidential candidate Secret Service protection currently rests with the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consulting congressional leadership. President Trump will recall that in November 2015, the Secretary of DHS agreed that as a presidential candidate he needed Secret Service protection a full year before the election. That was based upon his situation specifically and the threat environment that existed generally. That was also an assessment made aided by knowledge of the larger threat picture to the homeland - something the Secretary of Treasury is not focused on day to day, nor should he be. 

Likewise, the Secret Service's cybercrime mission fits well within DHS, given that DHS also includes the newly-created Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is supposed to be the federal government's principle agency for cybersecurity. Efforts have been made for years to establish DHS as the primary cabinet-level department for cybersecurity. To put the Secret Service in Treasury would be a step backward.

Perhaps the biggest and most tangible reason for keeping the Secret Service within DHS are so-called "National Special Security Events." These are massive, high-security events that involve the president, such as an inauguration or national political party convention. The Secret Service is the lead agency for the coordination of the security for these events. The largest NSSE in recent history was the 2015 UN General Assembly in New York City. The Secret Service was the lead agency given the convergence on Manhattan Island of the president, the Pope and over 100 other world leaders under the Secret Service's protection. Many federal and state law enforcement agencies were involved, but to accomplish the mission the Secret Service drew heavily on other DHS components: Homeland Security Investigations to supplement personal security, the Coast Guard to provide maritime security of the East River, TSA to screen visitors to the UN and the area, and FEMA to respond in the event of an attack. Overseeing the coordination of all these DHS components and their thousands of personnel rightly fell to the Secretary of DHS.

Likewise, many will recall the public reports of a credible terrorist threat to another NSSE - the 2009 inauguration. Planning for the security of that event took much of the DHS Secretary's personal time and attention. That responsibility best resided with the Secretary of Homeland Security, not the Secretary of Treasury, who was then besieged with the 2008-09 economic crisis.

Too often official Washington makes decisions of long-term consequences in reaction to short-term events. DHS is and has been much more than immigration; it is the overall protection of the American homeland and its people, from the land, at sea, in the air and in cyberspace. The Secret Service is part and parcel of that mission.

Jeh Johnson served as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017 and as general counsel of the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012; he currently is a partner in the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP.

Michael Chertoff was secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. He is executive chairman of The Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management advisory firm.

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