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?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama walks, with Secret Service agents by his side, to greet well wishers upon his arrival in Tampa, Florida, Friday. An advance detail of agents in Cartagena, Colombia, were sent back to the US after allegedly hiring prostitutes.

As many as 12 US Secret Service agents preparing for President Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, apparently fell short of the service’s motto – “Worthy of Trust and Confidence” – and were sent back to the US, according to published reports, for excessive drinking and consorting with prostitutes.

Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan wouldn’t confirm the numbers of agents involved or the circumstances for their reprimand. But he said, “The Secret Service takes all allegations of misconduct seriously.”

But the head of a law enforcement union that represents Secret Service agents said at least one accusation involved an agent and prostitutes. While soliciting prostitutes is legal in Colombia, the Secret Service considers it inappropriate.

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According to staff at the Hotel Caribe, Secret Service staff drank heavily in the hotel, where White House staff and members of the press were also staying. A separate report said a prostitute complained to police after one of the agents failed to pay her.

A supervisor admonished the agents and sent them back to the US on Thursday. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the move had no operational impact and did not affect Obama’s security, though it came amid tight security and two separate bomb blasts in Cartagena ahead of the Summit of the Americas.

The scandal may be one of the largest for the buttoned-up agency that’s known for its sunglasses-and-earpiece wearing men who protect the president, vice president, other top US officials, and visiting dignitaries. But it comes just two years after about 100 agents dished dirt about their jobs and the people they’ve protected over the years in “In the President’s Secret Service,” former Post reporter Ronald Kessler’s gossipy peek into the Secret Service’s inner workings.

 The scandal also comes at a proving time for the agency, which is dealing both with a boom in cyber-crime – its ancillary responsibility – and growing perceptions of threats against senior US officials, all on top of protecting the first black US president, who receives a steady dose of death threats.

"Once Obama became president," Kessler wrote in his book, "the Secret Service experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of threats against the president, in comparison with President Bush."

Created by President Abraham Lincoln to tackle counterfeiting, the US Secret Service began protecting presidents in 1901, and its role has continued to evolve, especially after 9/11, when it was moved from the Treasury Department to DHS. The constant expansion of mandated protectees by Congress has complicated the agency’s mission, according to the Congressional Research Service, which has suggested Congress consider splitting the agency in two in order to refine its investigative and protective missions.

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.

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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