Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 23, 2012

The Secret Circus may soon be looking for a new ringmaster.

The prostitution scandal involving a dozen Secret Service agents in Cartagena, Colombia, is spreading into a broader burlesque for the agency, furthered by a Washington Post report that tolerance of a frat-house culture has induced some employees to come up with the “Secret Circus” name.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

But the ringmaster of this circus, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, sees no cause for alarm. On Wednesday, he went before a Senate committee looking into the scandal and announced unequivocally that what happened in Cartagena was a one-of-a-kind event.

“Over the last six years, we’ve done 37,000 trips around the world, and we’ve had no situation like this one before,” he said from the witness table. “This is not a cultural issue. This is not a systemic issue with us.”

Not a single member of the panel, Democrat or Republican, accepted Sullivan’s blithe and categorical dismissals. Yet no amount of bipartisan incredulity, and no piece of evidence the senators presented, would budge the ringmaster from his breezy insistence that the Cartagena Dozen were the only clowns in his circus.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel, asked whether the facts that the agents in Colombia made no attempt to conceal their actions and that supervisors were among the offenders “reinforce the claim that this kind of conduct has been tolerated in the past.”

Replied Sullivan: “I just think that between the alcohol and, I don’t know, the environment, these individuals did some really dumb things.”

And, she asked, what about a survey that found that 40 percent of Secret Service personnel wouldn’t necessarily report ethical misconduct?

“I don’t know that that presents a problem,” he answered. He also said he was “absolutely” unmoved by a report by The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamura in which punished agents said that they were scapegoats for “an unwritten code that allows what happens on the road to stay there.”

Sullivan similarly dismissed allegations of impropriety in El Salvador (“We were unable to prove any of these allegations”); an episode involving underage girls in a Utah hotel room in 2002 (“I haven’t looked at that case”); and other incidents the committee uncovered that involve foreign nationals, a prostitute or non-consensual sex (“Nothing like this situation we’re referring to now”).

The senators learned that the agency hadn’t bothered to sweep the agents’ hotel rooms in Cartagena to find out whether the prostitutes had left electronic bugs. The agents involved weren’t ordered to take polygraph tests, and Sullivan didn’t know whether those who did take the test were asked about past incidents. The inspector general looking into the matter said that he lacks the personnel to do an independent investigation.

At the close of the hearing, Collins repeated to Sullivan her hope that all the evidence — including the fact that the offenders weren’t all part of one group — might succeed “in convincing you that there is a broader problem here with culture.”

“You know, Senator?” Sullivan parried. “I’m hoping I can convince you that it isn’t a cultural issue.” He even wondered aloud whether his new directives, including a provision that agents follow U.S. laws when traveling abroad, may be “draconian” and unnecessary.

The ostrich defense did not play well. Sullivan didn’t seem to grasp the possibility that even though the vast majority of agents are honorable — a contention nobody challenged — there still could be a problem. His appearance had the effect of elevating the scandal category from embarrassment to possible coverup.

The ringmaster was losing his audience. “Based on the facts of this case,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), “it’s just hard to believe that this is just a one-time occurrence.”

“I have to agree,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), “that it may not be an isolated incident.”

But Sullivan wouldn’t budge. “Under 1 percent of our population is involved in some type of disciplinary action,” he said, “and that just gives me reason to believe that this isn’t part of the culture.” It didn’t seem to occur to Sullivan that this statistic could indicate a lack of disciplinary action.

Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) counseled Sullivan not to “be at all defensive here, because this is like a wound to a body.” Added Collins: “If we ignore or downplay what happened here, it can be like a cancer.”

If Sullivan doesn’t change his tune, it won’t be long before his superiors conclude that he is the disease.

danamilbank@washpost.com