CHICAGO — Rasha Alhnaity arrived here earlier this month at a regional gathering of federal law enforcement applicants with some of the most-prized credentials of any of the nearly 150 candidates all pursuing the same thing: a place in the ranks of the U.S. Secret Service.
The 34-year-old data analyst holds masters' degrees in both business and health care administration. She is fluent in Arabic, and if there are any questions about her physical conditioning, agency officials need only scan the YouTube catalog of international martial arts events where she has competed as a fourth-degree black belt.
"I've been doing my homework,'' she said, anxiously waiting for the verdict after a first round of interviews. "I've worked very hard to pursue this life.''
Yet for every candidate approaching Alhnaity's clearly impressive qualifications, thousands of others seeking positions as agents and uniformed officers have been washing out of the Secret Service's most ambitious recruiting campaign in more than a decade during a period when the agency has faced unprecedented demands as it tries to emerge from controversies that have dogged it in recent years.
Complicating the agency's effort to boost its ranks, officials said, are otherwise promising candidates whose abuse of the amphetamine Adderall, or other prescription drugs, or their lack of candor about using them result in an abrupt removal from the process.
The problematic prescription drug histories, officials said, are emerging with troubling frequency in the midst of the hiring blitz aimed at rejuvenating an agency shadowed by a series of security breaches and recurring agent misconduct. Just two years ago, those controversies helped topple the service's first woman director, Julia Pierson.
An ongoing effort to add more than a 1,000 agents and uniformed officers to the ranks by next fall also comes during the most taxing 12-month period in the history of the service.
Beginning with the massive security operation that accompanied Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. last fall and culminating with raucous primaries, summer political conventions and the general election campaign, agents and officers have been thrust into the most volatile political environment in recent history. While hundreds of agents have been crisscrossing the country with the candidates, vetting a record 3 million people at the conventions and rallies, others have been culling through tens of thousands of applicants, who are being eyed to provide relief to weary security details even as the giant inauguration security operation looms.
The succession of major security events has been so demanding that some of the most veteran agents maxed out their overtime allowances in June and have essentially been working for free since, said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has closely examined the agency's operations in the past two years.
The unrelenting pace is what has troubled both critics and advocates of the agency, who believe the grinding nature of the Secret Service's mission has largely contributed to its recent troubles. Consequently, they say, an infusion of personnel for both the uniformed officers who guard the White House and plain-clothes agents who protect its occupants and a host of other government officials and visiting dignitaries, is urgently needed.
"The Secret Service is stretched to and, in many cases, beyond its limits,'' a special investigative panel concluded in a review following Pierson's resignation. "Perhaps the service's greatest strength — the commitment of its personnel to sacrifice and do the job no matter what — has had unintended consequences.''
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, a career agent summoned from retirement by President Obama to help right the agency, said the finding continues to influence virtually every facet of an ongoing internal restructuring effort.
"Everything starts with that staffing piece,'' Clancy said in an interview with USA TODAY. "The panel was exactly right when they said we wear this (heavy workload) as a badge of honor, and we shouldn't. ... We don't want to be in that position. Our goal is to try to take that pressure off. We're never going to be able to remove all of that pressure, but we're working to remove some of that pressure.''
With Clancy, 'the rain stopped'
Two years ago, when Clancy was plucked from an executive suite in the private sector, John Magaw, a former Secret Service director, described the moment as one of relief for the beleaguered agency. "Today, the rain stopped,'' Magaw said then.
Yet the barrage of failures that forced the change in leadership had clearly taken its toll. Starting in 2012 with disclosures that agents had consorted with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, in advance of a presidential visit, the agency was staggered by a succession of misconduct incidents and security lapses. The most stunning and consequential of the breaches would come two years later when a mentally-ill Army veteran scaled a White House perimeter fence, raced unimpeded across the north lawn and barreled through the mansion's unlocked front door before he was tackled near the Green Room.
Pierson, who had been quickly installed as the first woman director in the aftermath of Cartagena, was just as abruptly swept out in the downpour of criticism following the fence jumping and new disclosures about a breach during a presidential visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The success of the massive and near non-stop security events of the past 12 months, including the anxious run-up to the summer's two national political conventions, has helped quiet the critics. But not entirely.
While describing the agency's recent work as "amazing,'' Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, remains concerned about the continuing personnel stresses and the agency's long-term management.
"It's a big ship that doesn't turn easily,'' said Chaffetz, who has been the agency's most vocal critic. "I still want to look at altering the core mission.''
The press of the protective mission, Chaffetz said, has raised questions about whether the agency's investigative responsibility — defending the nation's financial and cyber institutions — should be moved to another branch of government. Such a move, Chaffetz acknowledged, would involve a dramatic break from tradition and require support across the political spectrum.
"It's important that it be bipartisan or else it is not going to go very far,'' the congressman said, adding the separate investigative responsibility only adds pressure to an already stressed workforce. "We need to give these people some time off to do their own thing.''
The congressman's proposal represents a non-starter for Clancy, who claims that the skills developed on the investigative side are invaluable to the protective mission.
"Absolutely not,'' Clancy said, referring to such a mission change. "I'm so very confident in this. ... This integrated mission is what makes us successful.''
Adderall a 'huge issue'
Much of the success or failure of the agency's ongoing restructuring program, Clancy suggests, depends largely on the continuing recruiting and hiring efforts in places like Chicago, New York and Fort Benning, Ga.
After all hiring was essentially halted in the midst of the 2013 government shutdown, restarting a national campaign has required an enormous redeployment of resources all its own. Private contractors were brought it to "build out'' a largely dormant human resources operation.
"Someone gave me the analogy of a Chevy that's been sitting in your garage for a couple years and then you go in and your turn it over and it may not kick right over. You have to work with it a little bit. And that's where we are.''
Perhaps the most daunting part of the operation, however, has been sorting through an avalanche of applications that has followed each job posting. Nine separate calls for agent applicants last year produced 27,000 potential candidates. From that pool, the agency offered jobs to just about 300 agent candidates.
The process requires candidates to run a vetting gauntlet, from multiple personal interviews to, ultimately, a date with the polygraph that few survive. Officials said the process has been further complicated by a generation of recruits whose relatively short life histories are marked by unusually high rates of prescription drug abuse.
"It is definitely a struggle with this generation,'' said Susan Goggin, the agency's chief recruiter. “Adderall is a huge, huge issue.’’ she said.
Abuse of the stimulant is what sunk an honors graduate from Eastern Kentucky University, who in Chicago acknowledged using the unprescribed drug — commonly used to treat attention deficit disorder — to keep pace with a heavy academic load.
The fresh-faced candidate, who asked not to be identified to protect his current job, had driven six hours and 400 miles at his own expense from his home in Lexington, Ky., to pursue what he described as a dream career only to be shown the door. He estimated that he used the drug up to 20 times during his years in college as a study aid, a practice remarkably common on campus, and failed to appreciate how it might affect his future career.
Crushed by his dismissal, he sat in the lobby of the agency's downtown office building near tears, facing the long drive home.
Nine floors above, Rahsa Alhnaity quietly celebrated the news that she was advancing.
Now, the Jordanian-born data analyst from Chicago awaits the results of polygraph examination that consumed more than five hours last week.
"The process is so long,'' she conceded. "But I'm ready for this.''
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