When Secret Service officer Timothy McCarthy took a bullet to protect Ronald Reagan in a 1981 assassination attempt and agent Jerry Parr shoved the president into a limousine, their quick reflexes projected a Hollywood-style image of invincibility around the agency.
Fast-forward to today: the 149-year-old Secret Service is struggling to emerge from a succession of scandals that have tarnished that iconic reputation, forced the abrupt resignation of its director and raised questions about its ability to fulfill its most critical duty: protecting President Barack Obama and his family.
Sources inside and outside the administration say many problems such as low morale, a leadership crisis and a culture of covering up mistakes can be traced back 11 years to when the Secret Service was pulled out of the Treasury Department and absorbed into the sprawling new Department of Homeland Security, where it had to compete for turf and money.
Even as the agency’s workload has mushroomed, its manpower levels stagnated and its funding increases have failed to keep pace with growth in overall federal spending in the past decade, a Reuters examination of Secret Service budget data shows.
There is also growing pressure to consider whether the Secret Service’s divided mission, which includes investigating financial fraud and cybercrime, is diverting resources and attention from providing security for the president, his family and other top officials.
“We’ve seen what many think was a high point for the Secret Service,” said Carolyn Parr, who co-authored a memoir with her husband, Jerry Parr, the agent who raced a wounded Reagan away from the scene of the shooting after John Hinckley Jr. opened fire outside a Washington hotel 33 years ago.
“What’s happening now is sad. I don’t know why the ball got dropped.” – Reporting by Reuters