Many of us who labor in journalism inevitably have contact with U.S. Secret Service agentsand encounter men and women as devoted to their task, as serious of purpose, and as professional as any of the finest in law enforcement. So it is nothing short of shocking to learn not only of last week's scandal in Colombia but also of hints that the problem may run deeper than one night of wild partying with prostitutes in Cartagena.
President Barack Obama has said that he will be "angry" if the allegations prove true, but it appears the White House is slightly behind the curve. Already, 11 agents have been placed on administrative leave, and a handful of military personnel are under investigation as well. Mr. Obama ought to be a little bit more than potentially peeved about it.
The scandal is hugely embarrassing for the agency. Whether the misconduct actually represents a security breach is not yet clear, but it's certainly a distinct possibility given that the agents probably preferred to keep their behavior a secret and therefore might have been susceptible to blackmail or other coercion. Or they might simply have blathered about security arrangements to the wrong people, the kind of tender trap the KGB used effectively during the Cold War years.
Have married agents long held a "wheels up, rings off" philosophy on foreign trips like the recent Latin summit, as some have alleged since the scandal broke? Others, including former agents, claim this is an isolated incident that is far out of the norm. As one might expect, those with firsthand knowledge of the incident aren't revealing much, at least not publicly.
Naturally, it hasn't taken long for such a salacious incident to pique the interest of Washington's favorite scandal-chaser, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, who rarely backs away from an opportunity to score political points. His interest here, however, is not unwarranted. If the incident is found to involve more than a serious lapse in judgment by 11 of the agency's 4,500 employees, a full-blown congressional inquiry might even be justified.
For the Obama administration, the timing is not so great. The practices of the General Services Administration (especially the now-infamous Las Vegas conference) are already suggesting a touch of undisciplined excess in the bureaucracy. That's not an especially good thing for a candidate to put on his resume in an election year.
After all, if he really wants taxpayers revved up during an economic recession, Mr. Issa can just show them federal tax dollars being used to put some bureaucrat in a gilded bathtub in a fancy Vegas hotel suite with a million-dollar view and two full glasses of wine — as he did this week. That would be none other than the GSA's Jeffrey Neely, who struck the pose during a "pre-conference" scouting trip in 2009 (when U.S. unemployment woes were at their peak).
But other than embarrassing, what does it all really mean? This is obviously not where 99.9 percent of federal tax dollars are going, and any organization the size and breadth of the federal government is going to have knuckleheads in its ranks. Good management or no, that's simply the nature of the human condition.
Republicans will use "hookergate" to try to tar the president, but Americans have bigger issues on their minds than some bungling bureaucrats, or at least they ought to. Besides, one can argue that the chief victims of any shortcomings within the Secret Service are the president and his family. They are the ones put in danger when agents don't do their jobs correctly.
Mr. Obama is going to have to demonstrate that he's serious about cleaning up such messes when they are encountered, and he can start by rolling some heads. That's already happened at the GSA. The Secret Service's Mark Sullivan may be next on the chopping block. To his credit, it appears the director acted quickly to recall the agents involved, but that may not be enough if the alleged behavior of agents in Colombia turns out to be part of a pattern.
Still, the Secret Service's image has been sullied, and that's not something to be taken lightly. Agents are famous for their willingness to "take a bullet" for those they protect, and their reputation likely deters some who might otherwise do the president harm. Restoring that ideal will require more than a few sharp words or some political posturing.