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How Can The Secret Service Recover Its Reputation?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

After a very bad, very embarrassing week, the U.S. Secret Service is now under new leadership. Joseph Clancy, himself a former head of the presidential protective division, is the new acting head of the agency. Clancy takes over from Julia Pierson, who resigned after The Washington Post revealed a man with a knife had scaled the White House fence and made it all the way to the East Room.

The Post and the Washington Examiner also discovered that a convicted felon, who was carrying a gun, was allowed to ride in an elevator with the President. For an agent's perspective, we reached out to Ralph Basham. He directed the Secret Service from 2003 to 2006. He says the recent incidents had been completely unacceptable. But he also believes the agency faces a nearly impossible task.

W. RALPH BASHAM: I don't think that there is anything systemically wrong in the Secret Service. When I was director, in fact, when I was involved, you know, in the Secret Service, there were incidents. And they were high-profile incidents.

But in today's media and the 24-7 reporting, it just seems to expand and just go on and on and on. And - but I don't think - I really Arun, I really, truly believe - I know the men and women in the Secret Service. I know when they show up and they put on the badge and the gun, that they're dedicated and committed. And they know the consequences of failure.

RATH: And there have been a number of security breaches under past presidents. In February 2001, a man named Robert Pickett fired a handgun by the White House fence.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The subject was brandishing the firearm. He was waving it in the air. The weapon was pointed at the White House at one point.

RATH: In 1994, Francisco Martin Duran stood in front of the White House, pulled an assault rifle out from under his trench coat and opened fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The authorities still say they're not yet sure how many shots were fired, but at least eight bullets struck the White House complex, one near a guest bedroom on the second floor.

RATH: That very same year, another incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This is some of the wreckage of the single-engine plane that crashed onto the South lawn of the White House overnight.

RATH: A man crash-landed a small airplane into the White House lawn. The man was killed in the crash. That brought to mind an incident two decades earlier. Army private Robert Preston stole a helicopter and flew towards the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The bizarre chase came to an end when the stolen helicopter landed - or was forced down - on the South lawn of the White House.

RATH: Those are just some of the security breaches over the years. There have been a number of other nearby shootings and intruders. Ralph Basham, the former director of the Secret Service, says the agency does need to instill a culture where agents feel more comfortable raising concerns with managers. He also suggests potentially rethinking the current White House fence. But Basham does not think the agency should clean house, as some have suggested.

BASHAM: I feel that that is just absolutely totally inappropriate for someone to paint, you know, with a broad brush, paint the Secret Service management team as unresponsive or incompetent.

RATH: And, Basham says, the agency's reputation as an infallible security force is not always helpful.

BASHAM: Obviously, that is the perception and sometimes it's very difficult to get beyond the fact that these people are human beings. And they make mistakes. And they're not superhuman. But that's the image they have and unfortunately sometimes it's difficult to live up to that. And the pressure to live up with that reputation can sometimes be daunting.

RATH: That's W. Ralph Basham. He ran the Secret Service from 2003 to 2006. He's also a founding partner of the Command Consulting Group. The House Oversight Committee has called for a thorough report on the agency's failures. The White House is putting together its own review of security procedures to be completed in December. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.