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Panel calls for Secret Service reforms, including new White House fence

A panel says the Secret Service should appoint a new head and boost staff and install a new White House fence

An independent panel created after multiple security failures by the Secret Service released its findings Thursday, calling for a series of improvements, including a redesigned White House fence, the appointment of a new director from outside the agency, and increased staff and training.

"For an organization that has a zero-failure mission … a commitment to constant improvement and a refusal to compromise are essential," said the investigators, who included former Justice Department and White House officials.

The panel was instructed by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to investigate the agency after a series of security lapses led to the resignation this year of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.

In one of the most alarming lapses, a White House fence jumper penetrated multiple layers of security to enter the building before being tackled by agents. Omar Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty to federal and state offenses, including two counts of assaulting a federal officer and one count of entering a restricted building with a weapon.

Referencing the intrusion, one the most pressing recommendations called for immediate upgrades to the fence surrounding the White House, which has been repeatedly scaled in the past, forcing Secret Service officers to make controversial decisions about their response, the report said.

"When someone jumps the fence, they must decide, in a split-second, whether to use lethal force on a person who may not actually pose a viable threat to the president or the White House," the panel said. "By deterring these more frivolous threats, a more effective fence can minimize the instances when such difficult decision making is required."

They noted that a new fence should be taller and not include features such as horizontal bars that make climbing easier. The panel focused much of its attention on reform within the agency itself, saying, "the problems exposed by recent events go deeper than a new fence can fix."

Among their most significant suggestions, the panel recommended that a new director be an outsider, someone who could "make difficult choices."

"Only a director from outside the service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require," they said.

The agency's acting director, Joseph Clancy, is a former member of President Obama's protective division but has been praised by lawmakers for the changes he has instituted, including a renewed emphasis on training and hiring.

Panelists said personnel were also lacking adequate training to keep their skills sharp, saying that the agency was "stretched to, and, in many cases, beyond its limits," forcing agents and uniformed officers to work frequent overtime shifts.

They noted that the protective division, which guards the president and other leaders, received on average only 42 hours of supplemental training in the 2013 fiscal year, while the more than 1,000 uniformed officers received the equivalent of 25 minutes of training per officer during that same period.

Constrained by budget restrictions and antiquated systems, the agency also suffered from a personnel shortfall, they said.

A lack of agents and officers contributed to lackluster training, because replacement shifts were unavailable for on-duty personnel.

"Providing more time for training requires increased staffing, but the Secret Service needs more agents and officers even beyond the levels required to allow for in-service training," the panel said. "But under any scenario, the service has to increase significantly in size."

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he supported the panel's findings but still would call for a bipartisan commission to continue to investigate the agency.

"While this review is a good start, the [Secret Service] faces significant challenges on how best to prioritize reforms in these tight budgetary times," McCaul said in a statement. "I still believe Congress should create a panel to conduct a truly independent, bipartisan, top-to-bottom review."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) called upon the agency to put the recommendations in place quickly.

"It is imperative that the Secret Service begin to review and implement the recommendations made by the U.S. Secret Service Protective Mission Panel as soon as possible so it restores itself as a dynamic agency," he said in a statement.

Several of the panel's recommendations regarding hiring and training were addressed by interim director Clancy during a Capitol Hill hearing in November, when he told lawmakers that he was putting in place new systems for training and hiring.

But both the panel and Johnson noted that some of the recommendations in the report dated to a Secret Service review in 1995, and even back to the Warren Commission following the assassination of President Kennedy.

A Homeland Security Department review in November reported a series of security lapses that allowed Gonzalez to enter the White House in September, including an agent taking a personal phone call and officers who were unfamiliar with the layout of the White House.

matt.hansen@latimes.com

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