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Secret Service Colombia scandal: Agents working too hard, or not hard enough?

Twelve US Secret Service agents were sent back to the US from Cartagena, Colombia, after allegedly drinking heavily and consorting with prostitutes. Is the long-veiled agency struggling with an increasingly complex mission?

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Others say the agency, which has a $1.5 billion budget, most of which goes to support 3,200 special protection agents, is fine as it is. They point out that agents haven’t lost any of their protectees in nearly 50 years. The last attack came in 2005, when a man in Tbilisi, Georgia, threw a hand grenade at President Bush. The bomb, which landed 61 feet from dignitaries including First Lady Laura Bush, didn’t detonate.

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With movies like “In the Line of Fire” featuring Clint Eastwood and the 1939 “Secret Service of the Air” starring Ronald Reagan, Hollywood has often glorified the long-veiled Secret Service (although “Air Force One” starring Harrison Ford as a president who endures treachery from a Secret Service agent is the rare critique).

More broadly, Americans have more than once seen agents risk their lives.

Agents Clint Hill and Rufus Youngblood were hailed for their selfless reaction to the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas and protection of first lady Jackie Kennedy, and agent Tim McCarthy was commended for taking a bullet and widening his stance to protect President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as John Hinckley fired six rounds. In all, agents have successfully protected six presidents from seven attacks, according to the Congressional Research Service, with Gerald Ford, surviving two separate gun attacks.

The agency has its critics, to be sure. In a 2009 book review, James Bamford, a noted intelligence analyst, writes, “But for all their talk of danger, there are few jobs in law enforcement as safe as that of a Secret Service agent. None have been killed during an assassination attempt in more than half a century, and few have been wounded. It is far more hazardous to put on a Bureau of Indian Affairs or Park Police badge.”

The publication of Kessler’s book also stung the agency, as it recounted tabloid-style observations from the outwardly straight-laced agency, providing a jarring contrast to some critics.

Interesting in light of the latest accusations, for example, agents discussed Lyndon Johnson’s “stable” of female friends, and dished on Vice President Spiro Agnew, whom agents claimed to have escorted to hotels for trysts. “We felt like pimps,” one agent said.

The book also showed Secret Service agents to be, on the whole, a conservative lot, who considered George W. Bush “down to earth, caring,” while criticizing the Clinton Administration for its chronic tardiness at events.

This week’s scandal came as two bomb blasts rocked Cartagena ahead of Saturday’s summit in a region still struggling to control violent drug lords and a global cocaine trade.

"These personnel changes will not affect the comprehensive security plan that has been prepared in advance of the President's trip," Mr. Donovan, the agency spokesman, said.

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