Back in 1996 I had an opportunity to work alongside the U.S. Secret Service’s presidential security detail. Bill Clinton was scheduled to speak at the T-dome and a “jump team” flew out to brief the police officers assigned to assist. My partner, a young agent with the Secret Service, and I spent hours on our feet facing out towards any possible threat.
Despite my impression that the event was an exercise in organized chaos, Clinton’s appearance went off without a hitch. After a stressful day, the presidential detail and the local cops shared some good times before they caught a plane for the next town.
By which I mean we went out for a beer. No prostitutes, no strip clubs. I swear.
Fast forward to this week’s media buzz (TNT 4/19) originating in Colombia: Eleven agents assigned to President Obama’s advance security team were flown home after a debacle involving alleged prostitutes.
I can understand the allure of tropical Cartagena’s legal brothels, especially to the jet-lagged agents whose lonely job it is to endlessly circle the globe with their protectees. Maintaining professional standards must be challenging in such a tempting setting so far from home (unlike Tacoma, I guess). It starts with a few casual drinks, an introduction to a woman whose financial requirements are getting foggier with every drink you take. Next thing you know, you’re in the middle of an argument between a prostitute and local police. Scandal and headlines follow.
That embarrassing outcome is not the worst case scenario. Not if the “next thing you know” is that you’re being blackmailed with career-ending pictures by a terrorist organization. Those are the stakes for the Secret Service agents who protect the President of The United States.
The integrity of the agents involved is a serious question. Each must answer for their own personal responsibility in this scandal. Here’s the thing, though – the fact that so many personnel decided to engage in such risky behavior says just as much about the leadership culture at the Secret Service as it does about the integrity of the individuals themselves.
That is why political leaders, urged on by the media frenzy, have every right to call Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan onto the carpet. Personally, I would ask how much responsibility he would take upon himself for the action of his agents. If the answer were anything less than, “100 percent!” then he would be on the first plane outta town.
The value of strong leadership is unquestionable. In its absence, military units may descend into the type of behavior that has plagued our recent Afghan campaign; highly profitable companies, such as Washington Mutual, may suddenly cease to exist; law enforcement agencies may lose the faith of their communities while defending overly aggressive behavior.
The agents involved in the Cartagena scandal must account for their own actions. However, assuming that these individuals did not join the Secret Service in the hopes of engaging in a drunken sex party in Latin America, their willingness to stray from their mission is also, unquestionably, a leadership issue.
As the mess unravels, and the political vultures descend to feed, it is imperative to identify the leadership void. The risk to national security is tangible.
We place great trust in the Secret Service. The iconic image of solidly built agents, wearing dark sunglasses and earpieces spiraling down into their suits, is synonymous with their reputation as the world’s most vaunted bodyguards. We expect to see them jogging alongside the presidential motorcade, standing patiently during a speech, or diving in front of a crazed gunman to protect the leader of the free world.
We don’t expect to see them conducting their important duties while behaving like teenagers on Spring break. Scandal or not, this house needs cleaning.