Secret Service agents are supposed to handle, not cause, trouble

April 19, 2012

Let’s start with this:

The whole point of the Secret Service is to deal with the situation.

If one occurs, the agents in the president’s protective detail are supposed to handle it.

They’re not supposed to be the guys who create it.

They’re expected to be aware of the lay of the land, not directly experience it.

They’re recruited for their street smarts, and it turns out some of them don’t have many.

That’s the shocker wrapped up in the rolling revelations involving Our Guys in Cartagena — the 20 or so geniuses on the advance squad sent to Colombia. Their job was to make the ground safe for our president, but they apparently decided they also deserved a night of Absolut debauchery and ended up with their private parts, to evoke a classic Washington phrase, caught in a wringer.

The sexcapades — which reportedly started with nightclubbing, then strip-clubbing, then special room service from prostitutes brought back to the Hotel Caribe — could have remained a classic “cover and evacuate” Secret Service operation, adapted for personal use, but for a communications failure over local customs and local currencies.

Investigators reportedly have yet to catch up with the ladies involved, in this sultry beach-side city where prostitution is legal, but the evidence suggests that one of the visitors did not go quietly when she couldn’t resolve the dithering over her price.

“I tell him, ‘Baby, my cash money,’ ” one of the women told the New York Times. The argument escalated, according to some accounts, other agents emerged from their rooms, the hotel manager arrived in the hall, as did a Colombian policeman, and suddenly, the evening’s service was no longer secret.

The Hotel Caribe has a long-standing protocol in which visitors to the rooms of guests are to leave their identification with the front desk and leave the hotel quietly by 7 a.m. And if anyone should understand the usefulness of structure and protocol, it should be the highly trained members of the U.S. Secret Service.

Instead, the episode has claimed the careers of three longtime members. One supervisor was fired outright, one has decided to retire — and really, what more is left for him to accomplish? — and another employee will be allowed to resign. More dismissals are expected.

According to the story, the Caribe 11 were sent to Cartagena as members of “jump teams,” groups of special agents and uniformed officers who land with their big biceps and wrist mikes and stern faces and bags of guns a few days before large events. They follow other teams of White House and agency employees who work with State Department personnel on complicated security logistics, and they precede the president’s own protective service detail, which travels with him on Air Force One or at the same time on military transport planes. While they wait, hey, maybe sometimes they get bored and decide to sample the local delicacies.

Some of the Cartagena cohort were reportedly part of an elite counterassault team, the sniper guys who wear black jumpsuits and jackboots and ride in an open-backed vehicle in the motorcade. These are the guys who sometimes wiggle their weapons to wave away unsuspecting drivers, a move that has terrified more than one carpool-driving mother yakking on her cellphone.

The rest of the team members were to sweep the venue, using their wands and magnetometers and bomb-sniffing dogs.

(Where were the dogs, by the way, during the friskiness with the prostitutes? Maybe with the weapons, which are supposed to be kept locked up in a room that another agent guards, according to a former agent who has worked on such events but spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe some of the agency’s methods.)

Also among the carousers were 10 military personnel who were working with the team.

President Obama has spoken sharply about how he expects federal employees to get it together when traveling, and former and current agents have said they are angry and dismayed about the hit their reputation has taken.

The real problem isn’t that they’ve besmirched the Secret Service, and it’s hard to imagine that the president’s security could have been compromised by what Wolf Blitzer on CNN referred to as “the so-called honey trap.”

Let’s be grown-ups about this. It’s not shocking that these guys found themselves in the situation. After all, guys in sunglasses and curly-wired earpieces take off their pants one leg at a time just like everyone else. Turns out these American icons are just like ordinary people who go out of town on business and lose their minds on the half-priced margaritas at Chili’s that taste just like the ones at home. Or certain other federal employees who decide they need a mind reader, an artisanal cheese plate and hot-tub suite, because why should they be cheated out of a Vegas experience? They didn’t create the deficit.

What’s disappointing is that these square-jawed ones, trained to mow down marauders and anticipate all threats, couldn’t get out of their own situation.

As Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday, the employees under investigation were “stupid,” but “there is not a bill we can pass to cause people to have common sense.”

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