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Lori Handrahan Headshot

A Woman Heading the Secret Service?

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This year I've found myself encouraging my students at American University to apply to the Secret Service, FBI and CIA. Now why would a liberal activist/academic who often finds herself at odds with U.S. Government policy do that? I'm wondering. Recent news that Secret Service agents allegedly engaged prostitutes has me wondering even more.

In my Security and Development course, I use a World Bank report, "Conflict Security and Development." It contains a haunting statistic: "The world's shadow economy, including organized crime, could be as high as 10 percent of the GDP globally." Global GDP in 2011 was estimated at $78.95 trillion U.S. dollars. International development assistance from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members weighted in at a scant $133.5 billion USD in 2011, in comparison.

My students often ask me: How do I use my life to make a positive difference and where do I serve? I started to realize, slowly, that the world has changed so swiftly and so radically this past decade that those of us who dedicate our lives to international development and humanitarian response are working against a tsunami of criminal power, finances and violence that has the power to undo whatever good we do almost instantly.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told the U.S. Congress that "we are living in the most dangerous time." Having worked in places like Chad/Darfur, Central Asia and the Balkans, I strongly agree. Yet, the liberal left (of which I have always identified) is writing rebuttals like Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen's "Clear and Present Safety" in Foreign Affairs. I disagree with nearly everything they write and that makes me wonder.

This semester, while I have been processing the staggering scope of global organized crime and implications for our ability to promote human development, security and freedoms, I also find myself baffled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security calling the Anonymous movement "terrorists," the failure of the international community, yet again, to prevent wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria, the harsh criticism of Invisible Children's Kony2012 good work and regular news reports of U.S. government employees involved in sexual exploitation and abuse.

This past weekend, Secret Service staff allegedly committed a serious security breach by buying sex from prostitutes and bringing them back to the hotel where they were setting up security for the President. Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes reminds "this nation may not long endure as a great power unless it finds the eyes to see things as they are in the world." What must these Secret Service agents understand about the world when they are willing to compromise our President's security, our nation's security and pride, for their own illicit sexual behavior?

Sadly, the Secret Service scandal is not exceptional. The Boston Globe's report on senior Pentagon staff downloading child porn on government computers and Miami's senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Anthony Mangione, recently charged with possessing, receiving and transporting child porn, are only a few of the many accounts one finds with a simple Google search. Our intelligence community appears to be consistently compromising our national security from inside when its own members engage in sexual abuse and exploitation; the bread and butter of organized crime.

The World Bank's report "Conflict Security and Development" does offer some hopeful recommendations: "involving women in security, justice, economic empowerment programs can deliver results and support longer-term institutional change." Last week, one of my best female undergraduates was accepted into the FBI's Criminal Division. She was thrilled she will be able to serve our nation by fighting child trafficking and organized crime and so was I.

General Dempsey is correct, but it is critical to understand that at least some of this insecurity comes from the inside, from actions like those of the Secret Service agents in Colombia. Appointing a woman to run the Secret Service, and ending the boys-will-be-boys attitude around sexual abuse and exploitation, that feeds organized crime, may be one important answer to insecurity General Dempsey has so correctly identified. It is certainly my answer.

Lori Handrahan, Ph.D. is a faculty member at American University's School of International Service in the International Development Department. She is an expert on sexual-gender based violence in war zones and sexual misconduct by humanitarians within UN operations. She can be reached at handraha@american.edu