Over the past decade, there have been fewer salacious headlines
about the agency than previously, but now it faces a scandal over
allegations of misconduct involving prostitution.
For an agency that was long known as a “good ol’ boys” club, a
prostitution scandal involving 11 members of the U.S. Secret Service
has dredged up an image that it appeared to have moved beyond.
While the Secret Service cultivated a reputation as the ramrod-
straight, and straitlaced, protectors of the president — the Clint
Eastwood look-alikes willing to take a bullet for their country —
it was dogged by unwelcome scrutiny of misconduct. Agents were
disciplined or prosecuted for sex with under-age women, drunken
driving, barroom brawls, drug use and other off-duty problems that
called into question their professional fitness.
But over the past decade, there have been fewer salacious
headlines about the agency and a sense that its culture had changed,
in part because it had more women employed. Now, the Secret Service
faces a scandal over allegations of misconduct involving
prostitution last week in Cartagena, Colombia, prior to President
Barack Obama’s arrival for the Summit of the Americas.
“Some of the older agents would say all the time that when they
would check into the hotel, they would ask, ‘Where is the bar?’ Now
they say the agents today walk in and ask, ‘Where is the gym?”‘ said
Daniel Bongino, a Secret Service agent from 1999 to 2011 and a
Republican candidate for Senate from Maryland.
He added, “This is a national embarrassment for our government
and for the Secret Service.”
On Monday, Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman
of the House oversight committee, continued the criticism of the
agency that he began over the weekend. In an interview on “CBS This
Morning,” he said it was common for agents to have “wheels-up
parties” at the end of a presidential trip but that in this case the
agents had a “pre-wheels-up party.”
The 11 Secret Service employees involved have had their security
clearances revoked, pending the outcome of the investigation, an
agency spokesman said.
“It is still a rigorous ongoing investigation, and that is where
it stands at this point,” said Max Milien, the spokesman. “This puts
them, as we have stated, on administrative leave, and they cannot
get onto any Secret Service facilities.”
In a memorandum to Secret Service employees, the director, Mark
J. Sullivan, said the agency had “moved in a swift, decisive manner
immediately after this incident was brought to our attention,”
according to a copy of the memo obtained by The New York Times on
“The United States Secret Service has a long, respected history
of operating with the very highest levels of professional and
ethical behavior,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The overwhelming majority of
the men and women in the Secret Service live up to these standards
every moment of every day.”
Ronald Kessler, who wrote a book on the Secret Service, said he
did not think that the type of behavior seen in Colombia was
prevalent at the agency. Rather, he said, it reflected a “lax
attitude” toward discipline that has allowed agents to skirt rules
without any serious repercussions.
“There’s a wink and a nod attitude” toward a variety of
violations, he said, including problems in agents’ physical fitness
tests and firearms proficiency and the Secret Service’s failure to
spot gate-crashers, a Virginia couple linked to a TV reality show,
at a 2009 state dinner at the White House.
Mr. Kessler said administrators had not backed up agents who
tried to flag disciplinary and behavior problems. “What kind of
message does that send to the guy at the gate in the White House?”
Part of the problem, officials said, is that members of the
Secret Service spend so much of their time traveling in large groups
to foreign places.
“After work is done, people like to have a good time, and they
are often in very interesting places around the world with a lot of
time to kill,” said a former White House official who worked on
advance teams with the Secret Service.
While most do not cross the line, he said, “you are going to have
people who make bad judgments.”
For years, Secret Service officials have cast problems that arose
publicly as isolated episodes and attacked outside criticism as
unfair and overreaching.
Agency officials were particularly incensed by a 2002
investigative article in U.S. News World Report. It depicted an
agency where partying, heavy drinking, inappropriate sexual liaisons
and other off-duty problems were rampant. One agent was found to
have had a sexual relationship and shared methamphetamine with a 16-
year-old girl, while another agent on President Bill Clinton’s
detail was said to have had an affair with a cousin of the
As in the case of the 2009 state dinner, the problems sometimes
have spilled over into protection issues. During the agency’s
security work at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, an agent
shopping for souvenirs at a skateboard shop mistakenly left behind a
detailed security plan for Vice President Dick Cheney and his
In recent years, the Secret Service has made an effort to recruit
more women and minorities. The number of women in the Secret Service
“wasn’t a number we were proud of and was something we had to work
on,” said W. Ralph Basham Jr., the head of the Secret Service from
2003 to 2006.
During his tenure as the head of the agency, Mr. Basham said,
women made up 11 percent to 15 percent of its employees. According
to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, about 25 percent of
Secret Service employees in the 2010 fiscal year were women.
Mr. Basham, who is now a principal at Command Consulting Group, a
security company, said that the proportion of women in the Secret
Service was not much different from those at other law enforcement
agencies but that the amount of travel may have deterred some women.
“It is a tough job to balance the workload and the family life,”
The fallout from the Colombia episode has continued to ripple
across Washington. The Defense Department, which had said that five
service members who had been working with the Secret Service in
Colombia were involved, said Monday evening that the number was most
At a news conference with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said,
“We let the boss down, because nobody’s talking about what went on
in Colombia other than this incident.”