Secret Service sex scandal: Could it lead to blackmail?

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, voiced such concerns in the wake of the alleged prostitute incident in Colombia, which led to the recall of 11 Secret Service agents.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
A Secret Service agent stands guard as U.S. President Barack Obama departs on the Marine One helicopter for travel to Colombia for the Summit of Americas, from the White House in Washington April 13.

If Secret Service agents did indeed cavort with prostitutes in Colombia prior to the Summit of the Americas, could their actions have led to blackmail in future years?

That’s what Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California worried about on Monday morning in the wake of revelations about the incident, which led to the recall of 11 Secret Service agents prior to the summit’s start.

“Well, what we’re concerned about is that failure today can lead to blackmail five, 10, 20 years from now.... If you look at how you get somebody to do something wrong, you do it incrementally – something small, something bigger, something bigger,” said Representative Issa in a Monday morning appearance on "CBS This Morning.”

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that he’d been told the prostitution scandal was part of a pattern of behavior that included raucus “wheels-up” parties for advance personnel on foreign assignments after the departure of principal officials.

Issa’s panel “will look over the shoulder of the inspector general” as he investigates the scandal, the congressman said.

Could the agents’ actions really have left them open to blackmail? It’s true that the incident was serious one: According to news reports, it involved a “pre-wheels-down” party among advance Secret Service personnel so raucous that employees of the Hotel Caribe had to ask for quiet more than once.

It is not yet clear how many of the 11 recalled agents were involved with prostitutes or how many were married. News reports depict at least one woman who was angered about not being paid and created a disturbance in the hotel in the morning.

It is true that sexual peccadilloes have long been a means by which espionage agencies attempt to embarrass officials from target nations, forcing them into providing sensitive information.

It’s called the “honey trap” in the trade, and it may remain alive and well. The British MI5 counter-intelligence agency several years ago distributed a warning to British banks and other financial institutions that China is engaging in a wide-ranging effort to blackmail Western business people via sexual relationships, according to author Phillip Knightley.

In a 2010 article in Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Knightley outlined the history of the honey trap, noting among other things that the notorious East German spymaster Markus Wolf had a special division of male “Romeo spies” whose jobs were to try to build relationships with lonely West German female government workers.

But is all that really applicable today? Besides the MI5 warning, the latest incident recounted by Knightley dates from 1986, when Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu was lured out of hiding in London by a female Mossad agent, leading to a 15-year prison sentence in Israel.

In today’s relatively permissive society, it may be hard to believe that a limited peccadillo could lead to treason decades hence. Perhaps Issa’s committee should focus instead on Secret Service competence in general.

On NBC's “Today" show Monday morning, author and Secret Service expert Ronald Kessler said he believed that the agency has been cutting corners for years, doing everything from letting people into White House events without requiring them to walk through metal detectors (remember the Salahis?) to ignoring guidelines for agent physical fitness.

“The agents themselves are generally brave and dedicated, but that’s not the issue.... This is the worst scandal in the history of the Secret Service,” said Mr. Kessler, referring to the Colombia incident.

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