As the U.S. Secret Service arrived in the Netherlands last weekend for a presidential trip, managers were already on high alert to avoid any further embarrassing incidents involving agents.
The agency’s director had admonished supervisors after two counter-sniper officers suspected of drinking were involved in a March 7 car accident during a presidential visit to Miami, according to several people with knowledge of the incident. The driver passed a field sobriety test and was not arrested.
So in Amsterdam on Saturday night, Secret Service supervisor George Hartford had the Miami incident in mind when he issued a warning to a group of agents gathered for dinner: Go out if you want, but stay out of trouble.
By the next morning, Hartford was pounding on the hotel door of a 34-year-old junior agent who had passed out drunk in a hallway and later had to be lifted into his room by several hotel employees, according to a hotel spokesman and two other people familiar with the incident. The agent claimed to have no memory of the events.
That night on the town has created another highly public embarrassment for the elite Secret Service, which is still attempting to recover from a tawdry drinking-and-prostitution scandal two years ago during a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia.
The new incident — which unfolded in the hotel where President Obama was scheduled to arrive the following day — prompted immediate condemnation Wednesday from lawmakers in Washington. Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) said the agency has a “systemic” problem of rowdy and inappropriate behavior by its agents, who are sworn to protect the president and other senior officials from harm.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters flying on Air Force One on Wednesday that Obama had been briefed on the Netherlands hotel incident. The president believes “that everybody representing the United States of America overseas needs to hold himself or herself to the highest standards,” Carney said, adding that Obama retains confidence in Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.
After the unconscious agent was found in the hall Sunday morning, the hotel staff alerted White House staff that it had relayed the news to Secret Service managers, according to the people familiar with the incident. After a series of interviews, agency managers concluded that the passed-out agent and two others who went drinking with him had violated new rules meant to prevent improper conduct on official trips.
In Amsterdam — a city of 1 million with an international reputation for partying, open drug use and legalized prostitution — the trio had stayed out drinking until about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, though all were scheduled to start work at 10 a.m., according to a preliminary investigation. The time frame would put them in violation of a ban on drinking in the 10 hours before an assignment.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said one of the agents involved was sent home Sunday afternoon and the other two went back early Monday morning; all are on administrative leave. Pierson, who traveled with Obama aboard Air Force One to the Netherlands, signed off on the decision, he said.
The alleged misconduct did not jeopardize the president’s visit or cause “operational issues,” Donovan said. Obama’s safety was “not affected by the three getting sent home.”
The men, all members of the agency’s Counter Assault Team (CAT), had to be temporarily replaced by other agents in the country until additional agents could be flown in to meet up with Obama’s entourage at his next destination, Brussels, the people familiar with the matter said.
Those with knowledge of the internal investigation said the incident infuriated managers because it came less than three weeks after the traffic accident in Miami, which led to the two officers involved being sent home. Local police gave one of the officers a field sobriety test on suspicion of drunk driving but released him with a citation for the accident and no additional charges, those familiar with the incident said.
The two officers, who serve in the uniformed division, notified their superiors of the accident. They were ordered to return to Washington under Pierson’s “no tolerance” policy, an official familiar with the matter said. The two men continue to work for the agency.
It was one of several times in her year-long tenure that Pierson reiterated to her senior aides the need for all personnel to abide by agency rules of conduct, the official said.
The pivotal events in the Netherlands played out at the Huis Ter Duin hotel, a 254-room facility facing the North Sea in the resort town of Noordwijk, between Amsterdam and The Hague. Hotel officials initially denied an incident involving a drunk Secret Service agent after it was first reported by The Washington Post; by late Wednesday, a spokesman had confirmed key details.
Huis Ter Duin spokesman Stephan Stokkermans said the three guests involved in the incident, whom he declined to identify, under hotel privacy rules, arrived in an apparently intoxicated condition at the hotel early Sunday morning by taxi.
“They came in, they waved to the team at the reception desk,” Stokkermans said. “It was clear they had a good time, but they didn’t need any help.”
Later that morning, he said, a hotel employee discovered one of those guests sleeping in the hallway about 10 feet from his room, which had a key-card-style lock. It was about 30 feet from the nearest elevator, and the employee summoned co-workers for assistance.
“In the end, there were two persons helping the man back to his room, plus the employee who found him,” Stokkermans said.
It is a common enough event at the Huis Ter Duin that the hotel has protocols for guests that are found sleeping in hallways or on couches, which happens every two or three weeks, Stokkermans said.
“What you do at that moment is you try to awaken the guest and investigate their condition,” he said. “Then you assist the guest to his room. And if the guest is part of a group, then you inform the head of the group.”
According to two people familiar with the incident, the three are all GS-13-level agents. One of the three was serving as “team leader” on the trip, but he does not hold a supervisory position in the agency, officials said.
The team leader and a colleague told Secret Service managers they had no indication when they returned to the hotel that their co-worker was so inebriated, the people familiar with the investigation said.
At home, the news sparked fresh outrage from members of Congress. Some cited the incident as evidence contrary to the findings of a December report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which asserted that the Secret Service does not have an agency-wide cultural problem that encourages and tolerates personal misconduct.
“It shows that the report was a cover-up and a whitewash,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “There are significant cultural problems there that need to be addressed, systemic problems.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the Netherlands case was the first report of potential misconduct he and colleagues had heard about since Pierson assumed leadership of the Secret Service a year ago. “But for a person charged with protecting the president to be found unconscious in a hotel hallway puts a real question mark in the minds of a lot of people as to whether or not those rules have been understood,” Thompson said.
In the Netherlands, the scandal spread quickly and local media devoted reporters to calling lists of Amsterdam watering holes. And in Noordwijk, drivers puttering in the Huis Ter Duin lobby said they had been besieged with text messages from friends asking about the incident. But none said they had heard any gossip about it until the news broke.
Birnbaum reported from Noordwijk. Scott Wilson in Brussels and Wesley Lowery, Ed O’Keefe and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.