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Former Secret Service Agent Says Recent Errors Are 'Systemic Failure'


We're going to take a break from our South by Southwest coverage to tackle a story that's been in the news this weekend. On Friday, the Secret Service said that an intruder was on the grounds of the White House for some 16 minutes before he was apprehended in an incident on March 10. President Trump was in the White House at the time, and the incident is raising new questions about the Secret Service. In a separate incident, the Secret Service also reported on Friday that an agency laptop computer was stolen in New York.

Now, all of this is raising new questions about the Secret Service, culminating with a letter from Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who runs the House Oversight Committee, demanding more information from the agency. We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called former Secret Service agent who also worked on the Presidential Protective Division. His name is Dan Bongino. He's been highly critical of the agency. We're speaking with him via Skype. He's in Palm City, Fla.

Mr. Bongino, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DAN BONGINO: Sure, happy to be here.

MARTIN: I understand that there was another incident today. Can you tell us any more about it?

BONGINO: Yeah, it appears they had another potential fence jumper. And that term fence jumper's come to mean a few different things now that they've put the bike rack outside of the traditional White House fence. So it appears that he just made it over the bike rack, this jumper today, and did not get to the actual fence, which is a good sign. It shows that at least today the security plan worked. But as we saw the other day, it failed catastrophically.

MARTIN: Now, you have given interviews to other media where you have said that the president is no longer safe on the White House grounds. And I would think that would be a very serious charge coming from someone with your background. Why do you say that?

BONGINO: It is a serious charge. And for those who know my history, you know, I've written books on the issue. I'm not hyperbolic about it. I don't say things I can't back up. I say it because one, this is now the second time we've had a catastrophic failure of the security plan. Of course, we had the Omar Gonzalez incident, the infamous incident on our north grounds where a war veteran with a bad knee made it all the way onto to the state floor and was thankfully tackled by an off-duty agent at the time who noticed something wrong.

Now we have this other incident with Jonathan Tran, who leapt the north ground fence on the Treasury side but made it all the way to the south grounds, tripped multiple alarms - by the way, from what my sources are telling me, alarms that were cleared. In other words, they went and checked it out and said nothing was wrong there - and made it all the way to the south portico. Now, there's simply no way to put lipstick on that. That is a failure that is inexcusable. And after a failure earlier in the Gonzalez incident, it makes it even - it just compounds a disaster. It shows they haven't learned.

MARTIN: What is it that they should learn? I do want to mention that there has been quite a lot of turnover at the top of the agencies.

BONGINO: Yeah, it's a systemic failure. And what I've seen in the Secret Service through my 12 years there and since I've left, having talked to agents and even management personnel at the Secret Service who I still communicate with, is it's a top-down failure. The Secret Service has a sclerotic, you know, concrete, non-plastic group of managers that just can't mold themselves to the evolving threats. I mean, one of the jokes they used to have in the Secret Service, which is now becoming a tragic joke, was they'd say, you know, the Secret Service - yesterday's technology tomorrow.

In other words, the managers were so rigid in their thinking that when it came to the computers, the weaponry, the alarm systems, everybody said, you know what? This is the way we've always done it. Until it fails, we're not going to look at it. And what - that led to another, again, tragic joke a guy used to make with me when I was in the transportation section.

He'd say, you know, everybody wants to be on the White House detail the day after the White House is attacked because it'll be the most secure place on Earth, because that's the only thing that would provide the impetus for the Secret Service management to fix what - now, I want to be clear on this - what the rank-and-file agents already know is wrong with the security plan.

MARTIN: That's former secret service agent Dan Bongino. We're talking with him via Skype from Palm City, Fla. Mr. Bongino, thanks so much for your perspective on this.

BONGINO: Sure, happy to help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.

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