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US Secret Service too insular, needs outside leader, more agents: review

The US Secret Service needs an outsider to overhaul the insular agency, beef up staffing and improve training.

[WASHINGTON] The US Secret Service needs an outsider to overhaul the insular agency, beef up staffing and improve training - after building a higher fence around the White House, an independent review concluded on Thursday.

An executive summary of the highly classified review revealed deep problems at the top of the Secret Service, which is charged with guarding the US president and other senior government officials. "The panel heard one common critique from those inside and outside the Service: The Service is too insular," the published summary said.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson appointed a four-member independent panel in October after a Sept 19 intrusion by an Iraq war veteran who scaled the White House fence, sprinted across the lawn and got deep inside the mansion before an off-duty agent stopped him.

That incident prompted the panel's first recommendation: build a better fence "as soon as possible." It recommended one that is at least 4 or 5 feet (120 or 150 cm) higher and curves outward at the top to give agents more time to assess the risk of a jumper.

But the agency's problems, it noted, "go deeper than a new fence can fix." A director not tied to agency traditions and personal relationships will be better equipped to do an honest reassessment and encourage a culture of accountability.

The last Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, was a 30-year veteran who was tasked with cleaning up the agency's culture after a 2012 presidential trip to Colombia in which up to a dozen agents were found to have hired prostitutes.

Pierson resigned under fierce criticism on Oct. 1, less than two weeks after the Sept. 19 White House intrusion. That fence jumper breach came a day after the disclosure that an armed private security contractor rode on an elevator with Obama in Atlanta in a breach of protocol earlier in September.

The security lapses, along with a 2011 incident in which seven gunshots were fired at the White House, had raised concerns across Washington that Obama was not as well protected as he should be in an age of global tumult.

The panel said special agents and uniformed division personnel work an "unsustainable number of hours." "The Secret Service is stretched to and, in many cases, beyond its limits," the panel said. It recommended adding at least 85 special agents and 200 uniformed officers so the agency can shorten long shifts, reduce overtime and free up agents for regular training.

The agency's training regimen is far below acceptable levels, it said, with the average special agent receiving only 42 hours of training. "The panel's recommendations are astute, thorough and fair," Johnson said in a statement.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, incoming chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Thursday promised an independent congressional review of the agency.

The panel acknowledged that many of its recommendations had been made before but never implemented.