Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

What Can the Secret Service Teach Us About Nuclear Security?

| Jan. 12, 2015

One of the more notable storylines throughout 2014 was the continued failures of the U.S. Secret Service. There were three striking high profile lapses in the Secret Service’s ability to protect President Obama: one where a man jumped over the White House fence, running through the front door of the White House and throughout its main floor; another where an armed man with an arrest record was able to ride on the same elevator as the President; and another where a man posing as a Member of Congress was able  to sneak into a secured area where the President was speaking. Towards the end of the year, problems within the Secret Service became a hotly debated political football, resulting in the resignation of the Service’s director.

What were never discussed during the public debate about the failures within the Secret Service were the broader implications such failures had for protecting other high-value targets -- including nuclear weapons and materials. In December, the United States Secret Service Protective Mission Panel, which was tasked with conducting an independent assessment and developing recommendations for the security of the White House, issued a report from which one can draw some intriguing parallels for nuclear security.

Many of the recommendations made in the panel’s report track closely with those made in Managing the Atom publications and elsewhere.  The panel’s recommendations included implementing training programs to ensure that all protective teams know their roles and are tested in realistic conditions and environments; clearly communicating organizational priorities, giving effect to those priorities through action, and aligning operations with those priorities; creating more opportunities for officers and agents to provide input on their mission and training mid- and lower-level managers to encourage, value, and respond to such feedback; collaborating with other security organizations to increase opportunities for innovation; receiving periodic outside threat assessments and strategic advice; participating in international fora with comparable protective services; holding organizations accountable for sustaining completion of leadership priorities and reforms; and establishing a system to develop and train future managers and leaders.

The report calls for a budget boost for the Secret Service, but emphasizes that a bigger check alone will not fix the problems.  The report argues that “of the many concerns the Panel encountered, the question of leadership is…the most important. The Panel found an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability. From agents to officers to supervisors, we heard a common desire: More resources would help, but what we really need is leadership.” The need for prioritizing leadership in building a strong security culture also holds in the nuclear field.  As retired Gen. Eugene Habiger, former commander of US strategic forces and former “security czar” at the US Department of Energy, once said: “good security is 20 percent hardware and 80 percent culture.” The problems that led to security lapses within the Secret Service are not going to be solved by the report’s recommendation to replace the fence around the White House any more than the problems that allowed an 82-year old nun to break into the Y-12 nuclear weapon production facility are going be solved by a new fence.

At the same time, there was one potentially concerning recommendation in the report. It endorses implementation of “a disciplinary system in a consistent manner that demonstrates zero tolerance for failures that are incompatible with its [the Secret Service’s] zero-failure mission.” While seemingly reasonable in a situation like protecting the president or nuclear weapons, a zero tolerance policy can be problematic in practice. As has been demonstrated in recent years with cheating scandals among U.S. nuclear missileers, the expectation of perfection mixed with constant evaluation in preparing for an extremely unlikely event can lead to cheating and other behaviors that are the opposite of those desired.  In particular, if people are fired whenever there is an incident, they will stop reporting incidents, and the organization’s leadership will cease to know what is really going on in the trenches.

What is perhaps most concerning about the problems within the Secret Service are not the similarities its mission has with nuclear security, but the differences. The Secret Service has many advantages that should give it a better chance to be effective than many other security organizations, including nuclear ones.  First, it is one of the most elite law enforcement organizations in the world, able to recruit the best.  Second, there is no doubt about the reality of the threat it is defending against.  While it can be a hard sell to convince staff at a nuclear facility in the middle of Siberia or Idaho that it’s really plausible that a group of well-trained terrorists might attack (or that some of the staff themselves may be insider thieves), no one has to be convinced that the threat to the President is genuine.  Third, substantial resources are available.  Building a strong security culture with those advantages should be a far more straightforward job than it is for most nuclear organizations – yet even for the Secret Service, it has proved to be a challenge.

How can nuclear organizations build an effective security culture that ensures ever-improving performance, year after year?  This is a question that policymakers should consider when they assess the risk posed by nuclear weapons and materials. It is also a question that those who work at nuclear facilities must provide positive answers for every minute of every day.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas.What Can the Secret Service Teach Us About Nuclear Security?.” Nuclear Security Matters, January 12, 2015,

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