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GAO Tells Secret Service to Better Prioritize Resources

Commonly known for protecting the President, the U.S. Secret Service also investigates financial and electronic crimes (e.g., counterfeit currency and identity theft). In recent years, Congress and a panel of experts established by the Secretary of Homeland Security have raised concerns that the Secret Service’s investigative operations may negatively affect its protective operations.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was therefore asked to review the Secret Service’s investigative operations.

The review found that the operations of the Secret Service’s Office of Investigations generally support Secret Service protective operations in a variety of ways. For example, special agents in the Office of Investigations perform temporary protective assignments, such as during presidential campaigns or augment protective operations by securing a site in advance of a visit by a protectee. GAO found that personnel in the Office of Investigations spent 11.2 million hours supporting protective operations from fiscal years 2014 through 2018.

Most of the 40 current and former special agents GAO interviewed said that their investigative duties did not negatively affect protection. However, over half identified that they were frequently or sometimes required to work on investigations while assigned to temporary protective operations. Details associated with this topic are sensitive and have therefore been omitted from GAO’s January 22 report.

In December 2017, the Secret Service developed a plan to align its resources to combat what it identified as priority criminal threats (e.g., criminal activity with significant economic and financial impacts). However, GAO found that the available documentation of efforts taken does not consistently demonstrate synchronized efforts across the agency to counter the priority criminal threats, as envisioned in the plan. Further, the Secret Service does not have a systematic approach for identifying cases that address priority criminal threats.

The Office of Investigations employs a staffing model to determine how many special agents are needed in its field offices. The staffing model takes into account the number of law enforcement premium pay and standard overtime hours special agents are expected to work. It does not however consider annual caps on federal employee salaries, which may mean that the agency is underestimating the number of staff needed to meet its workload demands.

GAO has made six recommendations to the Secret Service:

  1. Identify which types of investigations and activities best prepare special agents for protective responsibilities.
  2. Develop a framework to help ensure special agents have an opportunity to work, to the extent possible, investigations and activities that best prepare them for protection.
  3. Establish a documented process to ensure that Office of Investigations resources are aligned with priority criminal threats. The process should outline key information to be included in plans for addressing priority threats.
  4. Identify investigations that address priority criminal threats agencywide and collect data on the resources expended to investigate the threats.
  5. Revise the special agent staffing model to ensure compensation limits are accounted for when estimating staffing needs.
  6. Use the revised model to recalculate and estimate staffing needs.

The Secret Service, via the Department of Homeland Security, concurred with all recommendations and told GAO of the steps already underway to meet them.

The Secret Service has established a pilot program to revise guidance on preparing special agents for protection. Upon completion of the pilot program in March 2020, the agency plans to revise a directive to give field office supervisors a framework for identifying key training and experiences to prepare special agents for protection. The agency anticipates the new directive being implemented by June 2020.

Regarding the establishment of a documented process to ensure that Office of Investigations resources are aligned with priority criminal threats, the Secret Service plans to replace its current guidance, the INV Priorities and Roadmap, with a new strategic document with the goal of better aligning resources to address priority threats by March 2020.

To identify investigations that address priority criminal threats across the agency, the Office of Investigations intends to revise its internal policy to further define the role of the Global Investigative Operations Center (GIOC), including how the GIOC will identify and track investigations into priority criminal threats. The agency anticipates that these revisions will be published by March 2020. To collect data on the resources expended to address priority criminal threats, the Office of Investigations plans to consider new and additional data collection methodologies. The agency intends to have developed an analysis of the validity of its revised data aggregation methodology by September 2020.

Finally, the Office of Investigations plans to address GAO’s recommendations related to its staffing model by working with the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy and the Office of Human Resources to revise the staffing model to ensure compensation limits are accounted for when estimating staffing needs. The Office of Investigations then intends to work with these offices and the Chief Financial Officer to use the revised model to recalculate staffing needs. As the Secret Service notes, this recalculation is likely to result in an increase to the number of special agents required for the agency to maintain its current level of investigative engagement. The agency intends to complete the revision of the staffing model by March 2020 and update staffing estimates by June 2020.

The New York Times recently reported that the White House is likely to propose the Secret Service return to the Department of the Treasury, but an administration report by a working group of homeland security, Treasury and White House officials warns of the damage that could do to the Homeland Security Department.

“Such a loss could open DHS up to additional reforms or reorganizations, perhaps even some involving the transfer or dismantling of other operating components, further weakening the department at a critical time in its development,” according to the report obtained by The New York Times. The group added that the move could also hurt the department’s efforts to protect the nation from threats to its computer networks.

The White House is expected to formally propose the move in its 2021 budget.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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