The Secret Service is, despite the importance of its primary mission, a relatively small government agency. Its 7,000 employees could all fit inside the FBI’s Washington headquarters. None work harder then the several hundred agents assigned to the Presidential Protective Division (PPD). It is not uncommon for them to pull twelve-hour shifts, six days in a row, especially when the president is traveling to a foreign destination. Today, the PPD is seething. Members of that elite detail were not among the eleven agents and officers who allegedly solicited prostitutes ahead of the Summit for the Americas in Cartegna, Colombia. The accused plainclothes agents were from the Washington, D.C. Field Office, including agents trained to be members of a back-up Counter-Assault Team, and were brought in to fulfill “Mission Support” duties.
[Initially, an agency official told New York, based on erroneous information provided to him, that the agents were based in the Miami Field Office, and that their duties were restricted to operating magnetometers and holding the perimeter around the summit. An earlier version of this article contained those errors.]
Since 9/11, the amount of resources the Service devotes to foreign trips has increased substantially. It now covers everything from critical infrastructure protection teams to make sure no one remotely tampers with air handlers in the president’s hotel, to special surveillance equipment, to a miniature polygraph machine that’s used in cases of an acute threat.
After the agents were recalled, the PPD had to do a complete reassessment of the security plans to see if replacements were needed. (They were.) The Service does its utmost to avoid creating distractions for the the president. That’s one reason why, as the Service’s upper echelon learned about the events on Thursday, it hoped that the story would not emerge until after the president had returned home. But the author Ron Kessler, a critic of the agency’s current leadership, got wind from a source about the recalled agents, and disclosed it to reporters.
In Kessler’s view, the scandal is the most embarrassing in the Service’s history. (I’d suggest that the Secret Service is more embarrassed by the presidents they have lost to assassinations.) Kessler believes that the current director, Mark Sullivan, presides over an agency separated into warring fiefdoms where merit is subordinate to clan instincts of supervisors. Such an atmosphere might lead to a lack of personal discipline.
Kessler’s view is not shared by the White House, which was satisfied with the way Sullivan reacted promptly to the prostitution allegations, as well as the Service’s last major embarrassment, when Tarek and Michaele Salahi crashed a state dinner in November of 2009. The president was directly touched by that mistake — literally, in that he shook hands with the couple — which makes it ultimately more worrisome than the personal indiscretions of a handful of horny men.
Still, even President Obama wants to know whether there are larger factors in play here. The Secret Service has always worried that its dual financial crimes-protection mission will be broken up, or that the agency will be dissolved and folded into the Justice Department. To prevent this from happening, the Service can’t make any mistakes. Agents must look their best. They must comport themselves with a physical and moral rectitude that is, in and of itself, straining. They must remain visibly invisible as they go about their protective mission. And creating a juicy scandal that overshadows a major diplomatic event is clearly the opposite of invisibility.
The Service can be arrogant when it comes to aspects of its protective mission, but has always exuded a sense of humility about itself. It does not have, like the FBI and CIA, any employee dedicated to working with Hollywood producers. It rarely gives reporters access to even its least sensitive operations. It does not leak, a rarity in Washington.
Humility and discretion clearly went missing in Cartegena, in a serious lapse for the Secret Service. But the lapse did not occur among those who protect the president most closely, and so the ultimate damage done to the Service will probably prove to be lighter than it seems today.