The U.S. Secret Service is not an agency one usually associates with scandal. When the men in suits who stealthily protect the commander in chief make the headlines, it’s usually for actions such as that of Timothy J. McCarthy, who took a bullet shielding President Ronald Reagan from John Hinckley’s assassination attempt.
Now, with a Latin American sex scandal still unfolding and questions about just how widespread the “wheels down, rings off” culture is, the Secret Service has been tarnished.
But it’s more than just whether the agents have a reputation for squeaky-clean moral behavior that’s at stake.
The image of insecurity that this projects to our enemies is damaging — and could have proven fatal in Colombia if the agents, reportedly boasting in the brothel that they were assigned to protect the president, let the wrong person into the bedroom.
Last Thursday, “allegations of misconduct,” in the words of Assistant Director Paul S. Morrissey, were made against 11 special agents and uniformed division officers who were in Cartagena preparing for President Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas.
“The nature of the allegations, coupled with a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct, resulted in the Secret Service taking the decisive action to relieve these individuals of their assignment, return them to their place of duty and replace them with additional Secret Service personnel,” Morrissey said. By Saturday, the agents involved were in Washington for interviews, and all were placed on administrative leave as a result.
Classifying it now as a personnel action, the Secret Service has said it will be tight-lipped about any further comment, which doesn’t help when the White House keeps referring reporters to the Secret Service for information.
But Homeland Security Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.), whose staff are also probing the incident, was briefed on the investigation Tuesday by Secret Service Director Mark J. Sullivan. What we do know so far is that the agents, whose tasks ranged from snipers to explosive detection, had been drinking heavily, but it hasn’t been confirmed if they met the prostitutes in one bar or more than one bar and then brought up to 21 women back to the hotel. Two of the agents were GS-14s, at the top of the pay scale.
Because of Colombia’s prostitution laws, the Secret Service has copies of the women’s IDs that they were required to leave at the front desk.
And though it’s legal in “tolerance zones,” drawing sex tourism to beach cities like Cartagena, sex trafficking and forced prostitution are big problems that the government has tried to combat. As many as 35,000 children are forced into prostitution, including 2,000 from Cartagena, though local authorities say that children are usually pimped through more covert methods such as the Internet.
“The 11 agents are having different recollections about what happened or are not telling the truth,” King said. What is known is that they were busted only because of a dispute over money between one of the hookers and her Secret Service john.
And though the number was initially reported at five, now up to a dozen U.S. service members are also under investigation in the scandal for allegedly taking some of the women the Secret Service brought to the hotel. Members of that team included explosives experts and dog handlers, and at least one Army Green Beret.
The questions of a deeper cultural problem are valid simply for the fact that so many men were involved and nobody ratted out anyone: they were only discovered because one guy was being cheap.
“The Secret Service demands more from its employees and these expectations are met and exceeded every day by the vast majority of our workforce,” Morrissey said. “This incident is not reflective of the behavior of our personnel as they travel every day throughout the country and the world performing their duties in a dedicated, professional manner.”
The extent of that behavior, though, does need to be investigated because it leads to that massive breach in the airtight security the Secret Service is supposed to be providing.
When agents are drunk, boasting of a cool covert job, and hiring ladies of the night, you never know what’s going to come into that agent’s room — and what wrench can be thrown into the U.S. security apparatus.
Once overrun by drug cartels, Colombia has battled back to the extent that it can now welcome foreign tourists. That war is far from over, though, and cartels throughout Latin America have been courted by nefarious elements that seek better positioning at America’s doorstep: Iran and Hezbollah.
And leftist rebels, though hobbled over the years, still wage war on the government, take hostages, and conduct bombings. Four bombs went off in Cartagena to mark the opening of the Summit of the Americas, though none were close enough to endanger the leaders.
The agents were in a dangerous part of the world, yet acted as if no lives depended upon their recklessness.
The White House stressed yet again today that it is waiting for the investigation to run its course, though Obama said in Colombia that he’ll be “angry” if the allegations are found to be true.
Press secretary Jay Carney also said that the president has “confidence” in Sullivan, lauding how he “acted swiftly in response to this incident and is overseeing an investigation that obviously needs to be conducted.”
“The Secret Service performs admirably in its number-one mission, which is to protect the president of the United States, to protect the family of the president, to protect those who travel with him or her,” Carney said. “That has been the case for this president’s predecessors and their families. And the president, as he said in Cartagena, feels very strongly that the work the Secret Service does, the men and women who protect him and his family, and those of us who work with him, is exemplary as a rule.”
“And they put their lives on the line, and it’s a very, very difficult job,” he added. “And he acknowledges that and appreciates it.”
Reform — and determination of how far these flaws extend into other critical agencies — needs to be the result of this fiasco, as the weaknesses of the U.S. security apparatus aired for the world to see only empower those with the goal of striking at American targets.