When I was a kid, tagging along with my mother to Democratic presidential candidate fundraisers in Florida, I wanted to be a Secret Service agent. I created lapel pins that matched the ones I saw the agents wearing. I remember, at age 14, standing in awe of an agent guarding then-presidential son Jeb Bush at a Republican hob-nob in Florida. Today, well -- maybe I'd have second thoughts. The Service is in the middle of a crisis. But there are plenty of things being reported about the events and about the Service that don't ring true to me as someone who has covered the agency for years. Here's an attempt to put into context some of the charges that are flying about.
Claim: The president was placed in danger by the actions of the 11 agents and officers.
Reality: Not likely. And certainly not directly. None of the agents were members of the president's inner circle of guards, part of the Presidential Protective Detail. The PPD protects the body of the president, but it also serves, somewhat obliquely, as an expediter of American democracy. To faithfully execute his office, the president needs to be able to go where he needs to go, and do what he needs to do, without distractions. It's in the nation's interest for the machinery of the presidency to run efficiently. If the Secret Service upstages the president, it makes his job -- whatever it is -- harder.
It is hard to get inside the brains of agents on the PPD, but it would be reasonable to assume that the scrutiny and questions surrounding the Colombia trip added to what neuroscientists might call their cognitive load. Anything that has the potential to disrupt an agent's concentration is also, potentially, a source of mental blinks during presidential events. So indirectly, to the extent that a distraction is a distraction, the agents might have been, well, distracted.
But the Secret Service fairly quickly replaced the agents and officers who were recalled, and no post, no counter-sniper position, no assault-team spot, was left unmanned.
Claim: Agents had the president's line-by-line schedule in their rooms. Or: Agents had detailed site surveys in their rooms.
Reality: These documents are stored on hotel floors secured by Marine Guards, or in security rooms manned by agents. Site surveys aren't even distributed until the day of the event in question. Agents who need to keep sensitive documents with them in their rooms are ordered to use safes. Ever since an agent left a site survey for a vice presidential stop behind at a skateboard shop in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, the Service has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding these sorts of operational security violations. It's possible that the supervisory agents had partial schedules or rosters of agents in their rooms, but there is no reason why they would be reckless enough (even in the context of their reckless sexual behavior) to leave them lying around. The verdict here: possible, but not probable.
Claim: The Secret Service is an agency full of boorish cads, and has a macho culture that encourages heavy drinking and extramarital affairs.
Reality: Every agency in the U.S. government had Mad Men mentalities until they went through cycles of reform. The Secret Service has been somewhat of a late adapter to changes, owing in part to its smallish size and insular culture. There is an ongoing civil lawsuit involving African American agents who claim they are not promoted at rates comparable to white agents.
But the last two directors have made aggressive efforts to diversify the agency. The percentage of female agents has increased significantly over the past ten years. The proportion of women who comprise the trainee classes grows every year. I have seen female detail leaders and shift supervisors, and seen them order their male counter-parts around. I also know several openly gay agents. As The New York Times reported, the agency's internal ethics codes have toughened, and compliance monitoring has been increased. It is true that being a Secret Service agent entails different stresses, and I would not be surprised if divorce rates among agents tend to be higher than the national average. But the Service has altered its recruiting procedures, too. Spouses of agents are encouraged to attend training sessions that are meant to show them how different life can be, and before would-be agents are selected for training, they must demonstrate to the recruiter that they know what lies ahead of them.
Claim: Director Mark Sullivan may lose his job.
Reality: He is one of the longest-serving directors in recent memory, and White House officials say he has the complete confidence of the president.
Claim: Sullivan and others at the agency don't spend enough money on protection and instead are focused on grabbing more of the cyber-security enforcement pie.
Reality: What does "enough" mean? The agency must make do with the resources it has. Its budget for protection has increased substantially since 9/11, and continues to do so, even in times of general budget duress. The number of protectees is down, which means that more agents are available to cover them. Operational mission support resources (counter-sniper teams, counter-surveillance teams) are used for more types of events than before. Events that are "off the record" -- where protectees show up without advance notice -- are going to require fewer agents and equipment, but the protective footprint is still larger than ever before. Like every agency, the Secret Service has to negotiate with Congress about its budget. Unlike other agencies, the Secret Service just doesn't play politics well: They don't play Democrats off of Republicans, or one committee off of another. Protection is an art and a science, and there are surely other ways to allocate resources, but there is no evidence at all that the Service is cutting back on resources. If you don't believe me go attend a presidential or vice presidential event.
Claim: This is the most embarrassing scandal the agency ever faced.
Reality: A "scandal"-- maybe. But the Service has lost two presidents to assassinations (William McKinley and John F. Kennedy) and nearly lost another, Ronald Reagan. Cartagena doesn't even begin to compare. And so far as scandals go, this one is only truly embarrassing because of the context surrounding it. The Service has never had any agent knowingly betray its core protective mission, unlike the FBI, NSA and the CIA, which have dealt with multiple spy scandals. The Service has never had a major financial scandal, unlike the FBI, or the National Security Agency, or the National Reconnaissance Office. There have been worse weeks for the Service.
By Marc Ambinder, GQ