Secret Service agents: All brave, a few foolish

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 19, 2012

The thing to know about Secret Service agents is that they would take a bullet for the president, the first family and others they protect.

The thing to figure out is how anyone that brave and committed could be foolish enough to start an embarrassing international sex scandal.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The second point should not detract from the first, even as hard questions are asked and the shame of agents is exposed.

Secret Service agents are a very impressive bunch. They exemplify the ultimate in public servants, trained to give their lives for others, as they stand with their hands poised in front of unbuttoned jackets, focused on their charges and people near enough to do harm.

Who knew, until now, that some of these strong, silent types really like to party hard?

And is it ironic that the official initiating the agency’s investigation into the 11 agents, who allegedly were with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, is female? She is the special agent in charge of the Miami office, who was on assignment in Cartagena at the time.

Here’s one thing the Secret Service affair has in common with the General Services Administration scandal over a conference outside of Las Vegas. In both cases, federal employees were responsible for exposing the bad behavior of colleagues.

Also, both incidents demonstrate that federal employees are held to a higher standard than private-sector workers often are — and rightly so. What GSA Inspector General Brian D. Miller called “excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible” GSA spending, wouldn’t even catch the eye of auditors in many private companies. And a recent episode of “Mad Men” showed the advertising company executives taking a client to a brothel.

But that’s not the point.

Federal workers must maintain a higher standard because they are guardians of taxpayer money and the people’s trust.

There’s also a fundamental difference between the scandals.

The GSA situation represents an organizational failure. It was an agency conference at the center of that scandal. The impact of the inspector general’s report was so great that the White House lost confidence in the administrator, leaving her no real choice but to resign, and two other top officials from the main office were fired. Ten other employees have been suspended.

The Secret Service situation is more the failure of individuals, who apparently forgot that they were representing not just the United States, but specifically the presidency. (Three agents are on the way out now and more departures are expected within days). Their actions were in no way sanctioned by their agency, as was the Vegas conference.

But the fact that so many agents were involved, along with a group of military personnel, raises legitimate questions about how so many people could think it okay to do something so stupid at the same time.

Is there something in the culture of the organization that allowed the individuals to deem their actions acceptable, especially when two agent supervisors were involved?

Determining just what happened and who did what will be easier than finding the answer to that question.

The agency should examine its culture; certainly Congress will.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan a letter asking for information on 10 points, including two that get to agency culture:

“What agency failures or lapses has the USSS (U.S. Secret Service) identified that contributed to this incident?

“Moving forward, what steps does the USSS intend to take to prevent a recurrence of a similar serious security failure and diplomatic embarrassment?”

It certainly was a security failure, but that doesn’t mean President Obama’s security was jeopardized. The agents did not have any sensitive materials, such as the president’s schedule or the posting points of agents, in their rooms. Their guns and other items were in a locked storage container called the “Halliburton.”

It’s notable that Issa and Cummings, who argue more than they agree, are united in praise of Sullivan. “Your swift and decisive action in response to this scandal has given us confidence,” they wrote, “that the agency will complete a thorough investigation and take steps to ensure that similar lapses in judgment will never again jeopardize the important work of the U.S. Secret Service.”

In an interview, Cummings added that the agency has been generally successful because of its reputation “as one of the most elite security agencies in the world.” The bad guys know better than to mess with it.

But now, that reputation has taken a major hit by the allegations of agents having a drunken night with prostitutes.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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