U.S. Secret Service agents used to have the inscrutability of guards at Buckingham Palace and the demeanor of Clint Eastwood in "In the Line of Fire." Nothing is as it used to be, from the priesthood to banking, so why should the Secret Service be any different?
Still it’s a shock when those men in black break character for nights of drinking and partying to the point where the host country calls out the Ugly Americans.
The latest happened in Amsterdam on Sunday among the agents doing advance work for President Barack Obama’s European trip. One of the partying agents got so drunk he passed out in the hall of his hotel. Staff called the embassy and the incident became public. Three agents have been sent home and disciplined, according to Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan.
Note that it wasn’t a supervisor or another agent who was worried that this behavior could compromise the agency. It was the locals — which gets to the real problem in the Secret Service.
The job brings with it hours of boredom for men (it’s mostly men) ever-ready to take a bullet for the president (and a long list of lesser officials), followed by moments of danger, real and imagined. There are many nights and days away from home on an expense account, in exotic locales, some where prostitution is legal or easy to access. The temptation to turn advance trips into spring break is great.
Agents don't rat out other agents, even the ones not in on the partying tend to abide by omerta. To break publicly, it has to be over the top, as it was in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012. In that case, it was a prostitute who ratted out an agent whom she said refused to pay the going rate. And it was Paula Reid, the highest-ranking female agent for South America, who came in to clean it up.
Female members of Congress from Sen. Susan Collins to Rep. Carolyn Maloney noted at the time that the incident wouldn’t have occurred if there were more women at the agency. Director Mark Sullivan apologized and quit the next year. The new head is a woman, Julie Pierson.
It’s not that Pierson hasn’t been a breath of fresh air or that there aren’t new rules strictly limiting drinking (it stops 10 hours prior to a shift) and barring agents from bringing any locals to their rooms. But the nature of the job requires a big shift of the culture. The bacchanal in Colombia might not have gotten off the ground if more women were staying in that hotel.
No matter how drunk, would agents risk a woman colleague hearing them argue with a prostitute in the hall over how much she was getting for her services? Would they even risk bringing the prostitute back to the hotel at all if they might be seen by a female colleague?
Ten agents lost their jobs over Colombia, and two congressional committees launched investigations. But we now know that wasn’t enough.
Margaret Carlson is a former White House correspondent for Time, and was Time's first woman columnist. She appeared on CNN's "Capital Gang" for 15 years. Carlson has won two National Headliner Awards as well as the Belva Ann Lockwood alumni award from George Washington University Law School. Read more reports from Margaret Carlson — Click Here Now.
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