The Secret Service’s attempts at damage control have only raised more questions. In the weeks after the scandal erupted, officials announced that all of the agency’s 3,500 agents and 1,400 uniformed officers—who provide security on the White House grounds and at other prominent sites in Washington and who support agents in their protective duties—would have to go through new ethics training. According to sources who were there, Smith, the deputy director, has been brought in to lecture Secret Service personnel, which some agents thought exemplified their boss’s hypocrisy and underscored how people are treated differently depending on their rank. The agency also issued ten new rules governing conduct on trips, including not drinking alcohol within ten hours of duty and not visiting “non-reputable establishments.”
If the Cartagena affair was a one-off, as Sullivan insisted, why did the agency need to issue new rules and retrain almost 5,000 employees? If the agency’s leaders didn’t think employees had a pattern of hiring prostitutes or engaging in sexual indiscretions, why did they have to warn them not to do so in the future?
In testimony before Congress, Mark Sullivan said, “I never one time had any supervisor or any other agent tell me that this type of behavior is condoned.” Such statements strain credulity. To believe that the Cartagena affair was unique, you’d also have to believe that this group of 13 men—not all of whom knew one another—broke into separate groups and independently got the idea, for the first time ever, to go out looking for prostitutes.
(Sullivan declined to comment, but a Secret Service spokesperson issued a statement noting that “the Secret Service has been transparent and cooperative to all entities with oversight of the agency, including Congress, to the degree permitted by legal, privacy and personnel department guidelines.”)
As the investigation progressed, more allegations surfaced, but they weren’t immediately made public. One agent who had slept with a prostitute in Cartagena admitted to having hired women in El Salvador and Panama a few years earlier. Investigators found allegations of similar conduct in China and Romania. At least 11 Secret Service agents admitted to investigators that they knew of employees having hired prostitutes on other occasions, and a review of complaints against individual agents made to the Homeland Security IG over the past ten years shows three allegations that Secret Service employees had hired prostitutes.
These cases represent a tiny percentage of the agency’s workforce—less than 1 percent, as Sullivan has noted. But they also reflect only those personnel who were caught or implicated by colleagues. Recently, a government-wide ethics survey asked federal employees whether they would report ethical misconduct by their coworkers. Forty percent of Secret Service employees either said they wouldn’t or were indifferent to the question.
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The culture of permissiveness in the Secret Service may not be one every employee ascribes to, but it nevertheless explains the behavior of men who would hire prostitutes without fear of serious punishment or who would openly conduct extramarital affairs, in defiance of the agency’s rules. The Cartagena incident may mark the end of this tolerance. But it’s not the only example of Secret Service agents misbehaving with women—just the most public.
It’s important to remember what the episode wasn’t: a legitimate risk to national security. There was never any credible evidence that President Obama’s security was compromised. There was no evidence, nor did anyone allege, that any of the 13 men had violated his oath to protect the commander in chief.
No one claimed that the agents had behaved honorably or appropriately, either, but the agents were punished more severely than other men who had engaged in the same conduct. Of the 12 military servicemembers who had slept with women that night, including prostitutes, nine were given nonjudicial punishments, including extra duties on base and a forfeiture of some pay, and one received a letter of reprimand. Two others have exercised their right to a trial by court-martial.
The DEA agents who helped hire a hooker for the Secret Service supervisor were also let off relatively easy. They initially tried to destroy evidence on their BlackBerrys and denied allegations that they’d ever hired prostitutes. They later recanted; one confessed to his role in the incident, another said he was too drunk to remember, and all three said they had solicited prostitutes on previous occasions. The men kept their jobs. Their case is still under review by an internal disciplinary board.
Ethics training and new rules on foreign travel might cause some Secret Service employees to think twice about hiring prostitutes. But the response by the agency’s leadership will leave a more lasting impression. If the Cartagena affair hadn’t become big news—and an embarrassment to the President—many of the disgraced agents would probably still have their jobs.
“If there’s a general lesson from rank and file up to management, it’s that when something involves the President of the United States, it’s newsworthy,” says Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who ran for the US Senate in Maryland in 2012 and whose brother, Joe, was out partying with Huntington in Cartagena. “When you’re dealing with the President, you represent the White House. You may say you’re representing the Secret Service. You’re really not.”
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.