Once again, the Secret Service is under political fire. Last week in New York, a special agent's laptop was stolen. It held sensitive government documents, such as the floor plans to Trump Tower and information on the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server. In Washington, on March 10, an intruder spent 15 minutes on White House grounds before being caught.
Both incidents are objectively concerning. Secret Service protocols demand that agents store their laptops in a safe location. They also assume that White House intruders will be quickly detained. While neither case was part of some coordinated plot, it's not hard to think what might have occurred if things were different.
Imagine, for example, if either incident involved a skilled terrorist group such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. If the laptop contained locations for Secret Service postings at Trump Tower, Hezbollah might have been able to carry out an assassination. Similarly, if the White House intruder had been joined by four or five others, President Trump would have been at serious risk (though not critical, I'll explain why).
In assessing these incidents, we must match our concern to relevant understanding. While the laptop theft is inexcusable, protecting the White House is far from easy.
First off, the White House complex is not designed to be a protective bastion. Quite the contrary, it is the people's house: accessible, aesthetically pleasing and physically representative of democracy. That's why it sits at the center of a major metropolitan area. Unfortunately for the Secret Service, this poses major security challenges.
Visit Google Earth and you'll see what I mean. On its northern and eastern sides, the White House complex is surrounded by civilian-owned buildings with elevated sight lines over it. Moreover, tens of thousands of unscreened individuals pass by the complex each day. From Pennsylvania Avenue, those unscreened citizens come 121 meters from the Oval Office.
Servants to democracy, the Secret Service accepts this reality but dislikes it. If the Secret Service had its way, Trump would live in Mount Weather's underground bunker.
But even if the Secret Service were allowed to dictate White House security arrangements, we would see many changes. The federal government would purchase all nearby buildings and close public access to roads for blocks in each direction. If nothing else, the Secret Service would make the White House fence 10 feet taller and top it with barbed wire and multi-prong, directional spikes.
Don't believe that's possible in a democracy? Then consider, for example, the high fences surrounding the British prime minister's Downing Street residence in London. Civilian line of sight to Downing Street is deliberately highly obstructed. The cost that Britain accepts and the United States does not? Downing Street looks like an Orwellian command center, and the White House looks like a metaphor for freedom.
Still, this doesn't excuse last week's White House intruder waltz. We know that the intruder triggered multiple alarms before being caught. And while the first alarm trigger might have been put down to a stray animal or something similar (the sensors are very, very sensitive), the second alarm should have triggered a full response.
It's not as if manpower was lacking. While the Secret Service is structurally understaffed, it fills gaps by generous congressional appropriations for overtime. Correspondingly, Secret Service patrol, counter-sniper teams (the folks on the roof), and an emergency response team (a sort-of White House SWAT team) officers would have been available to interdict the intruder. Why they took so long to do so is concerning. Put simply, it suggests someone, or some officers, were being lazy.
That said, we must pay heed to an important catch: in the end, the Secret Service isn't all that concerned about individual fence jumpers. The truth is that these intruders tend to be mentally unstable and relatively harmless.
Instead, what really concerns the Secret Service is a coordinated assault on the White House by multiple armed individuals. That drives Secret Service tactics in the event of a White House jumper.
In short, Secret Service officers and agents are trained to treat individual breaches as diversionary efforts designed to draw resources away from other posts. As such, when an intruder is identified, the Secret Service priority is 'closing up' around a protectee. These procedures were reinforced in the aftermath of a September 2014 incident in which a man armed with a knife made it into the East Room of the White House (although the then-first family was not in residence at the time).
Regardless, when this month's intruder was identified, we can be confident that four unseen but simultaneous Secret Service responses occurred.
First, White House access would have been locked down. Second, agents on Trump's Secret Service detail shift and the counter assault team (tasked with neutralizing attackers so the president's detail can evacuate him) would have closed up around the residence (Trump's location at the time). Third, the route from the residence to the presidential bunker (the Presidential Emergency Operations Center) would have been secured for critical incident staff. This would have enabled Trump's rapid evacuation to the PEOC were an attack underway. Fourth, the Secret Service operations center at headquarters would have sent a notification alert to the intelligence agents on each of the service's other details (to ensure continuity of government plans).
We know this because of history.
In November 1951, while he was staying at Blair House (across the street from the White House), President Harry Truman was attacked by two Puerto Rican terrorists. One heroic White House police officer, Leslie Coffelt (google him), was killed in that incident and others injured. But as the gun battle raged outside, and his friends fought for their lives, one agent, Stewart Stout, waited inside Blair House, his submachine gun at the ready.
As Ronald Kessler explains in his book, "In the President's Secret Service," Stout was the president's last line of defense. While the terrorists were neutralized before they could enter Blair House, Stewart stayed at his post rather than helping his friends. Doing so, he evidenced the fact that the Secret Service is focused on its protectees first and foremost. The buildings, even the White House, come second.
Yes, whenever the Secret Service fails to live up to its responsibilities, we should demand investigations and answers. But we also need to be aware. Protecting the president is neither easy to accomplish or easily understood. And before we denigrate the Secret Service, we should note that the agency has only lost one president in the last 54 years (Reagan's life was saved by the quick response of his detail in getting him to hospital).
And so, judged against the thousands of credible, capable and multi-national threats its protectees face each year, the Secret Service remains worthy of trust and confidence.
Tom Rogan (@TomRtweets) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.