Secret Service scandal becomes diplomatic embarrassment

The prostitution scandal involving Secret Service agents and military personnel seems not to have caused security breaches. But it is an embarrassment to both institutions, which may be just as serious an offense.

Prostitutes walk in front of the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia. As many as 21 women were brought back to the hotel by US Secret Service and military personnel in an incident involving alleged misconduct with prostitutes.

The prostitution scandal involving some two dozen US Secret Service agents and military personnel seems not to have caused any security breaches during President Obama’s visit to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.

But it is an accelerating embarrassment to both institutions, which may be just as serious an offense judging by the response so far.

As of Saturday morning, six Secret Service agents had lost their jobs, either fired or forced to resign, and more can expect to be let go or reprimanded.

Lawmakers are pushing to broaden and deepen the investigation beyond last week’s episode, and Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa added a political dimension to the affair Friday when he urged Secret Service investigators to check the hotel records for White House advance staff and communications personnel who were in Cartagena for the summit.

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The scandal took another political turn when Sarah Palin weighed in after pictures from ousted Secret Service supervisor David Chaney's Facebook profile emerged. He had joked about "really checking her out" after a friend commented on a picture of Palin, with Chaney standing in the background during the 2008 campaign when Palin was the Republican vice-presidential candidate under Secret Service protection.

Palin said the scandal was a sign of "government run amok."

It’s all a reminder that Secret Service agents are trained to do more than handle weapons, check out potentially threatening venues, guard high officials, and “take a bullet” for the president (as one did when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate former president Ronald Reagan in 1981.)
"You will be exposed to so many new experiences, challenges and, yes, temptations," a top official warned a 2002 graduating class of agents, according to a Reuters report.

"A Secret Service agent can sometimes be perceived as celebrity. We are not,” the new agents were told “Your daily conduct must be better than that which is technically legal – your compass must point to that which is right with a clarity and precision that reflects your commitment to this new responsibility." 

Violating that responsibility is at issue in today’s scandal, which stemmed from agents boasting that they were in Colombia to protect President Obama, then bringing some 20 women back to their hotel rooms. (The episode might have gone unnoticed but for the row that occurred when an agent argued over paying one of the women.)

Based on what is known so far, the after-hours carousing by a Secret Service and military advance team in fact appears to have been technically legal. Prostitution is allowed in Cartagena, Colombia (unless it involves under-age girls or boys).

But engaging prostitutes violates the Secret Service code of conduct (as does adultery), which can result in revocation of an agent’s security clearance. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), patronizing prostitutes can lead to a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and up to a year in prison, the Marine Corps Times has reported.

Senator Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said this week the Secret Service is “scrubbing the files and looking at whether there were any hints that there had been previous incidents.”

"Think of all the missions and countries that the Secret Service visits in advance of the president's trips," Sen. Collins told reporters. "I think they should look at disciplinary records, at whether supervisors … had admonished [agents] even informally. My instinct is that this was not one-time."

It’s more than a cliché that Secret Service agents and military personnel represent the United States as unofficial diplomats. Any misconduct can reflect badly on America, which is part of what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey was talking about when he said, “We let the boss down.”

“What’s striking is the attitude of these agents, who see Colombia as an inferior country, like a bordello,” Senator Armando Benedetti, of Partido de la U, President Juan Manuel Santos’s governing party, told The Daily Beast

“We are not talking about just anyone,” Sen. Benedetti said. “We’re talking about the first and second circle of the most powerful man in the world, a country that is not just a military power but the leading culture in the West. And when they come like this and humiliate these women by not paying them, this says a good deal about how they view us – as inferiors, as though we’re a second-rate country.”

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