By Shawn Engbrecht
It is a bit unusual for me to get involved with commentary on current public events as we, spectators all, don’t know EXACTLY what happened in the White House the evening Omar Gonzalez ran amuck through most of the main floor. And to be frank, the Secret Service will be understandably loath to advertise failure. Their director will doubtless be roasted in public by “important figures” both Democrats and Republicans, who wish to be seen to make a point. Reviews will be launched, committees formed, and the final report will be the thickness of the New York phone book.
C’est la vie, as life goes on in the dysfunctional city that is Washington.
The truth is not hard to discern. And although I will be off the mark in terms of precise details, I could save the Fed more than a few trees in terms of paper produced because I can write the executive summary right now. It never changes, never will, and will be a combination of what follows below.
The Secret Service:
I have worked with them on a number of occasions. My recollections as pertains to the Service are:
- A significant percentage of individuals have been utterly brilliant, highly competent, and a pleasure to work with. Their job performance, to include working with other security organizations, was superb.
- The majority were quietly proficient, did their jobs, and earned their paychecks. They were not scintillating, but rather highly adequate and did no disservice to their unique branch of the Government. Loyal and trustworthy comes to mind as adjectives. Stalwart public servants.
- A few were absolutely horrible, prone to alcohol, abused their position and I only wanted to never see them again. Sodden boozers hanging out with hookers is an understatement.
- So the reality is that the Secret Service, for all the hype, is composed primarily of people just like the rest of us. A few stars, the majority who do their best without negative effect, and a handful of losers who should have been dumped ages ago. If it sounds like your office place, you would be exactly correct. And people, for all their training, have predictable failures such as those that I will outline below.
In General, the Protocols Work:
Somewhere in the innards of 1600 Pennsylvania resides a very thick book or digital equivalent. It will contain the security Standard Operation Procedures for the White House. It will cover every contingency imaginable, from assassination attempts through to how to handle errant rodents during state balls. It will be highly detailed, thoroughly professional, and updated on an annual or bi-annual basis. Some very bright people will have authored it, and it will work. There will be no gaps. (Or so we hope)
Therefore, if there were no gaps in the procedures, then the audit trail of responsibility will land at the door of human imperfections. Many of the flaws I touch upon will be familiar to many readers based on their own work place experience.
Complacency kills. Do the same thing over and over again with no undue side effects and we start to take things for granted. “It will never happen to me” grows from a remote thought to a reasonable probability. If you stand guard at a door for 364 nights in a row and precisely NOTHING happens, why should number 365 be any different?
The British learned the hard way when an intruder actually made it into Buckingham Palace and sat beside the Queen (who was in the Royal bed at the time). They convivially smoked a cigarette together for the better part of 20 minutes before domestic staff intervened. Following the Parliamentary explosion (in terms of outrage) tours of duty were shortened, positions rotated, and every effort was made to counter complacency.
So the guard who was absent from her post at the North Entrance was probably gone for “just a second or two”. But in that time an intruder gained access to the building, bulled her over, and was gone, inside the epicenter of American Government.
The Secret Service was complacent. Expect shorter shifts, more rotations, and possibly fewer solo guard posts. (Or so we hope.)
Mindset. Sometimes being part of an enormous security team actually REDUCES overall security. In layman’s terms, it’s easy to take a mental break because you know 40 other guys have got you covered.
Wrong answer. On a recent surveillance exercise in Miami, I was being shadowed by no less than 6 pending graduates of our in house course. I was sitting on a park bench and vanished. How? Because NOT ONE of the six was actually looking at me when I pulled my disappearing act. They all assumed they could stare at the pretty girls because the other guy would take up the slack. It doesn’t work that way, as they discovered. The White House is one of the most heavily guarded building in the country, so it’s OK to zone out for a few minutes. After all, there are snipers on the roof and everything, right? Mindset is complacency’s evil twin and when coupled together produce ill disciplined individuals who have actually ceded the initiative to the opposition.
Fuzzy instructions. This one will NOT be the fault of the guys and girls on the ground, and in this case they will, to be a degree, left to hang for the failure of their superiors to provide concise instructions. This one is a leadership failure.
If the protocols state that an intruder shall be shot (or greeted with flowers and offered coffee for that matter) once he clears the fence and is moving toward the White House, then that is exactly what should happen. That’s the whole reason for developing security protocols in the first place.
But that is not what happens in reality.
Following the shooting of a female who collided with a White House security checkpoint in 2013, coupled with drunken agents passing out in hallways of hotels in Amsterdam when not found cavorting with hookers in Colombia, you can bet your last dime there was enormous “informal” pressure placed on all to avoid another fiasco. That’s a bad place to be if you are at the bottom of the totem pole and events are spiraling out of control in your 12 sq feet of responsibility. Indecision causes hesitation that far too often gives birth to disaster. Indecision occurs when we must make a choice and know we will get in trouble for making the “wrong call”. The truth is that those choices have already been laid out in stone, in the manual pertaining to security protocols. It’s a “no brains required” scenario and is built specifically to that end. The Secret Service did not show “tremendous restraint”. They demonstrated “tremendous indecision which caused a delay in terms of pulling a trigger”.
That indecision can be attributed to fuzzy instructions from higher, which failed to clearly define performance expectations. Or placed significant informal pressure on the troops in the line to do the opposite of what the Protocols dictate. That’s a good way to put people at risk. Leadership failure, pure and simple.
Inability to play well with others. So…….the crash box was turned to “mute” because the White House ushers complained it made their lives difficult and malfunctioned often? That’s kind of like keeping your house alarm permanently in the “disarmed mode” because its too much of a pain to activate…….
No one entity, regardless of importance, can unilaterally “bigfoot” (the insider term for trampling another organization in the US Government) another and expect no blowback. In this case, it is NOT the usher’s fault the security system was turned to low volume. The key to success is that the ushers, along with every other service sector in the White House, should have been offered “buy in” to all security systems and had a say, within reason, on the final selection. We get this at CASS Global all the time and one of our MANDATORY events is a collective meeting with ALL service providers to ensure they can live with what we are going to have installed. Because if they can’t human nature dictates they will make every effort to circumvent/disrupt the system which defeats the whole purpose of installing the device in the first place. It is highly unlikely the Secret Service solicited the input of others, even on the most trivial of scales. So instead of a collective, homogeneous “whole team” approach in the White House, an “us and them” mindset was allowed to develop. The ushers did what they needed to do in order to complete their job, which was, to them, no less important than what the Secret Service did. CASS Global has endeavored to industriously work with all service elements and to our long lasting relief, have never had a maid or butler turn off an alarm because it interfered with their job. Why? Because we asked for their input in the first place. As I said earlier, arrogance has a bad habit of returning and biting you in the rear end when you are least expecting it.
So let me hit the high points again.
- The Secret Service claims that until a few days ago they did not have the capacity to remotely lock or unlock the FRONT DOOR of the White House and the bolt had to be turned by hand, in person. This partially refutes my claim that the security audit was done by professionals, but let’s hopefully assume the system works in the big picture. (On a personal note, that’s pretty tough to digest…if an employee ever submitted a security audit to me with the recommendation that the front door be manually locked via key in person, I would be inclined to terminate their employment for incompetence, effective immediately. My wife can lock/unlock our front door from 2 continents away via her phone…..what were they thinking?)
- The guard at the front door was not actually standing her post in the Front door. Complacency, mindset, and poor personal discipline. Either individual or collective. We don’t know. Any private security company worth their weight in sawdust can perform to a higher standard than that. That includes those who perform security at malls and car parks. . As she works for the Fed, she will probably get a reprimand.
- As the intruder crossed the Front lawn, he managed to evade an attack dog which was not released, A SWAT team that had to chase him, and numerous plain clothes agents manning the perimeter. Complete breakdown, horrible communications, pretty much everything bad you can think of. I literally don’t know what to say.
- The assailant was eventually tackled by an OFF DUTY Secret Service Officer who luckily was wandering through the house after finishing his shift and was heading home for the night. The Service was lucky but luck is a poor tactic to rely upon in the security game.
If this happened under my watch at CASS Global, I would give serious pause to the option of resigning my chair and following a route in which I showed more competence. Perhaps a bowling lane attendant or some other equally stressful venue.
The failures described here are systemic, in depth, and are not a function of a single weak point. The entire apparatus broke. What a disaster.
I suppose I could take the “talking head” route and rant and rave about the failings of many and how the Secret Service needs to be informed of the utility of locks that do not require a human being to turn a key in them.
But the truth is that is not a fair response to the many people whose boots were on the ground that night, who did the best they could given the circumstances.
Were complacency, arrogance, fuzzy instructions, and a poor mindset all present, in overwhelming force that evening?
But I wasn’t physically there so am not qualified to pass absolutes.
But I also refuse to believe, not for a second, that every Officer failed in his/her assigned duty of their own volition. I won’t buy that because that is not representative of the caliber of individual who enlists in those organizations. Most people who aspire to jobs such as the Secret Service are not preconditioned to under perform. Quite the reverse.
Ergo, if the environment exists where such catastrophic lapses occur, then it is reasonable to assume there exists only one universal glue that holds all the pieces together, for better or worse.
Strong and competent leadership improves morale, reduces friction, and provides clear and unwavering orders/visions to subordinates. It encourages and solicits input from other service providers to create the best homogeneous organizations possible. Dynamic leaders empower subordinates, pushing responsibility down and forward, thus eliminating complacency, inappropriate mindset, and increasing overall performance standards. Not to mention contributing to self-pride and job satisfaction. Nobody shirks responsibility but rather gravitates towards it when a firm but fair hand is at the rudder.
This is a classic, even textbook example, of failed leadership. This is a perfect case of a ship without a helm, of a plane absent a pilot.
So will it change?
Superficially, yes. Fundamentally, No.
Because it’s Washington, DC. The one place in the country where truly dynamic leaders, of any race, of any political party, of either sex, will forever fear to tread.