The Washington Post

Secret Service flap creates barely a ripple among Amsterdam’s residents

Three helicopters, including U.S. Marine One, are seen over Amsterdam on March 24. (Cris Toala Olivares /Reuters)

In this relaxed canal city famous for its tolerant approach to drinking, sex and drugs, the notion that three Americans went out drinking on a Saturday night barely rated as news this week. Even if the Americans were U.S. Secret Service agents.

Dutch readers woke Thursday to barely a whisper about the ongoing Secret Service behavior scandal in their morning newspapers, with most local media repackaging a squib of American reporting, if they mentioned it at all. Other European newspapers were equally blase.

Three agents were sent home by the Secret Service this week after one of them was found passed out drunk in the hallway outside his hotel room hours before he was set to go on duty. The incident was another black eye for an agency struggling to move beyond a 2012 drinking-and-prostitution scandal in Colombia, and it prompted sharp condemnation from lawmakers in Washington.

But Dutch citizens on Thursday hardly batted an eye, taking advantage of a lovely spring day to partake of the city’s pleasures, which famously include coffee along the canals and marijuana in the coffee shops.

De Telegraaf, the largest newspaper in the Netherlands, splashed an article across its front page about a local controversy over early parole. De Volkskrant, another major newspaper, led with a story about President Obama’s visit this week — but it went with the local angle, focusing on Obama telling the European Union to be more self-reliant in a Wednesday speech in Brussels.

Earlier this week, one Amsterdam television station asked a Washington Post reporter for an interview after the Secret Service story broke but lost interest after it was revealed that the agents were actually staying in a hotel in Noordwijk, about 30 miles away.

“We are a local tv station so without the Amsterdam link i don’t think we can make the story,” the producer wrote in an e-mail.

When it comes to political scandal, outrage tends to dissipate the farther you get from the relevant nation’s capital, and overseas dalliances rarely make the cut.

U.S. foreign correspondents take the same approach. Among the many local kerfuffles here that most American journalists have avoided in recent years were a bribery scandal engulfing Germany’s president, a paternity scandal involving Belgium’s former king and countless smaller political affairs ranging from plagiarism to adultery to corruption.

Even truly epochal events don’t always resonate across borders. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011, the streets of Cairo were silent. Most people hadn’t heard the news; those who had were more preoccupied with their own country’s political tumult.

At the Huis Ter Duin, the luxury coastal hotel near The Hague where Obama stayed Monday night, few people were impressed by the Secret Service flap.

The three agents went out drinking Saturday night after being warned by their supervisor not to get into trouble, according to two officials with knowledge of the events. One of the men was found the next morning passed out in the hallway and was helped to bed by three hotel employees.

“These are young guys. It happens,” said one driver who had been contracted to help hundreds of Secret Service agents get around the Netherlands during the logistically complicated presidential trip. “You take them to a place like Amsterdam and they have a good time,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his employer had not granted him permission to talk to the news media.

The driver said he had ferried teams of Secret Service agents on sightseeing trips around the Netherlands, a postage-stamp nation about the size of Maryland — but not to the tulip fields. Some agents wanted to see the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the driver said. Other agents wanted to see the technically complex system of dams and locks that protects low-lying Netherlands from the open sea.

What they didn’t care about, the driver said, was the acres and acres of red, yellow and white flowers that are blooming across the Dutch countryside.

“Big guys,” the driver said, “don’t want to see the tulip fields.”

David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.

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