Perhaps 6,500 to 7,000 people serve in the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) of whom 3,500 reportedly are "special agents" dealing with presidential (current and former), presidential candidates', and visiting foreign leaders' protection, as well as law enforcement especially counterfeiting. Most of these people assuredly fulfill their sworn duties with honor and trust. Some do not. Indeed, too many do not.
Now under the Department of Homeland Security (previously housed within the Treasury Department until after 9/11), the USSS is an important -- even crucial -- but very troubled agency. A DHS Inspector General report late last year found systemic alcohol abuse among Secret Service personnel, and widespread awareness of such abuse in a survey of almost 2,600 employees. The IG also reported over 800 cases of misconduct in the 2004-2013 decade. But alcohol is only the frat-party portion of the story. This is not a "boys will be boys" tale, but rather endangerment of the President of the United States, national secrets and America's reputation.
As a Federal law enforcement agency, potential employees are subjected to a supposedly rigorous security review. This is a joke. And the security investigations, standard for the millions of Americans who have clearances, obviously have no way of getting inside heads...Manning's or Snowden included. Behaviorally, there have been repeated incidents of Special Agents hiring prostitutes, being publicly drunk, and engaging in salacious activities. All while on assignment, not on vacation. Anyone who has been through Federal security clearances knows that the system is overwhelmed, interviewers undertrained, polygraphs administered haphazardly, drug and alcohol testing beatable, leaving key behavioral and psychological traits underexplored.
Being a Special Agent in the USSS does not mean "only" being able to take a bullet for the President, run alongside a presidential limo or rapidly reload your M-4.
Rather it means maturity, judgment, intelligence, intuition and a cogent understanding of mission. These are rigorous qualities, and not those that testosterone and crunching abs will engender.
Being sober, not hung-over, and absent aches and pains from the last night with "ladies of the night" might be important to performing duties for the President of the United States, eh? To protect the President of the United States, do we really want these people with ear phones and little bulges under their sports coats to be nauseous or recalling the erotic encounters of hours ago hoping spouses never find out?
After the DHS IG report, some alleged "reforms" were implemented...no drinking 10 hours before duty for example. The IG report did not say, however, that one can sleep off a drunken binge in the hall of a luxurious hotel in Noorddwijk, Netherlands, a short drive south along the coast from Amsterdam. In the five-star Huis Ter Duis hotel the protectors of the President stumbled back towards their rooms late last week, one not quite making it to his door, later to be discovered by hotel staff slumped in the hall. I wonder if he had his Sig or Glock?
After the April 2012 debacle in Cartagena, Colombia, where 11 Secret Service plus military personnel were disciplined (but NOT prosecuted) for cavorting with prostitutes while supposedly preparing for President Obama's Summit of the Americas visit, President Obama named Julia Pierson as Director of the USSS. She had risen up the ranks in the Secret Service, and has a career and education in criminal justice dating back to her days on the police force in Orlando, Florida. Not insignificantly, she is the first woman to lead the Service. All to the good, and auguring well for change.
But, in two years Pierson has clearly not solved this agency's problems. The endemic culture is the problem not the person behind the biggest office desk.
The culture is too often -- not uniformly but far, far too prevalent -- one of debauchery. I care almost not at all about an NFL player unless hurtful violence happens or laws are broken. But, to protect the President or details crucial to national security, can one not control juvenile inclinations or testosterone or both? This is not a "people make mistakes" or "one rotten apple" (finish the phrase please) condition. The claim is made that, to become a USSS special agent one must run a gauntlet stricter than Harvard admission, and for that these individuals are very well paid at senior levels. And, yes, these people are brave as Timothy McCarthy demonstrated protecting President Reagan. But something is, today, very wrong.
It is not Pierson's fault; rather the core problem has become one of those "in power" who falsely believe they can do anything. Such power is derived solely from their GS level or security clearance, but from their presumed invulnerability. Big guns, fast cars, powerful boss. Many reading this will say, "no kidding"."
Were this incident during President Obama's European sojourn not enough, the USSS has had many cases of malfeasance. Let's set aside the DHS IG's report about alcohol abuse and resulting security endangerment. How about the 2011 events in El Salvador in March 2011 -- a dozen or more Secret Service employees plus military personnel "descended" on a strip club (said the owner), drank heavily and paid for sex in private rooms.
Or, how about the November 2013 event at the luxurious Hay-Adams Hotel in D.C. where Secret Service Special Agent Ignacio Zamora -- supervising other agents at the White House and an investigator of what happened in Cartagena -- just happened to leave a bullet from his weapon in one of the hotel's five-star multi hundreds of dollar a night rooms. He and his fellow agent, Timothy Barraclough, had both or in collusion also sent sexually explicit emails/texts to a co-worker. A nice work environment, don't you think?
Cartegena, Colombia is the pièce de résistance for USSS malfeasance. More than a dozen Special Agents with some military counterparts hiring strippers and/or prostitutes while at the Club Tu Candela. The reports about lead Special Agents Huntington and Bongino and others have been documented elsewhere -- sad for their wives and families. But, guess what, another 5 star hotel involved -- the beachfront Hotel Caribe, where they drunkenly entertained their "escorts." Surprise.
Another intriguing coincidence, if you want to call it that, between D.C., El Salvador, Amsterdam and Cartegena is that most involved were either members of the "CAT" -- the Counter Assault Team, earmarked to protect #1 were violence to occur -- or senior advisory Special Agents, not new recruits. The CAT, heavily armed, macho trained, are the SEALS-equivalent in the USSS, I suppose. But, unlike the SEALS who are in remote locales or on ship, the CAT agents and other senior Special Agents have access to five-star hotels, downing gin, bourbon or tequila, and often offering enhanced income to certain professions.
This is an agency in need of deep overhaul, thorough rebuilding, and re-culturing if that is possible. Psychologists, come on down! As said at the outset, no one should indict all or most of USSS personnel -- an absurd judgment. I know past Special Agents, and even have had two former students in those ranks. I respect their service as I trust they would respect mine.
Yet, there is an illness deeply entrenched and that sickness is a potential danger to national security and to the Commander in Chief regardless of who the President may be.
Daniel Nelson leads a consulting firm in Virginia.