Think of the Secret Service as akin to the Marines, at least in terms of pride. So when 11 agents soiled the service’s reputation by allegedly partying with prostitutes and bringing them back to secure hotel rooms ahead of a presidential trip to Colombia, it’s understandable that the rest of the 6,500-member organization might be outraged — even if current Secret Service agents aren’t publicly commenting on the incident.
But as one author close to the organization says, other agents are “furious” about the events that took place in Cartagena. Jeffrey Robinson, who co-wrote the book Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service with Joseph Petro, a former assistant special agent in charge of the service’s Presidential Protection Division, has extensive ties to the agency and keeps in touch with current and former agents. “What these guys did was tarnish that polish of the Secret Service, and that offends these guys with the pride,” he says. “The agents I know are furious. It is a huge embarrassment. They are upset with the 11 guys for being schmucks.”
Still, it’s worth keeping events in perspective: calling this the worst scandal in Secret Service history is just playing politics, Robinson says. The service’s blackest moment will always be Nov. 22, 1963, when it failed to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. It remains unknown whether the agents in Colombia knew enough about Obama’s itinerary to put him in jeopardy, although reports have surfaced indicating that the President’s schedule was in at least one of the hotel rooms on that night.
If the agents were merely members of a support team rather than the official advance group, Robinson says, that could limit the threat somewhat. Like many organizations, there’s a class system at work within the Secret Service. The best of the best work in the Presidential Protection Division, with the Vice President’s minders close behind. Then you have the advance team and field agents working posts and perimeters. At lower levels of seniority come the uniformed agents, those who work the metal detectors at events — the same division that allowed an infamous pair of aspiring reality-show party crashers into the White House during a state dinner in 2009.
When the President travels, security needs grow exponentially, and agents from all over the country and from every division are added to the mix. “They have a huge support staff and are there for however long they are needed,” Robinson says. “It is a huge circus when the President travels.” Some agents end up in charge of fairly minor operations — arranging mechanics for cars, standing at a post some distance from the President or even just arranging who will stay in which hotel room (as Robinson notes, they didn’t do too well at that).
It’s not as if the agents’ actions were harmless, however. They endangered themselves, leaving their IDs, badges and guns open to theft or potentially harmful situations, even in the mildest of security breaches. They also opened the door to possible blackmail, though Robinson believes that with the level of information they likely had, the extortion wouldn’t have extended much further than threatening to send compromising pictures to the agents’ spouses.
And while letting off steam isn’t unknown in the service — witness the traditional “wheels up” parties after an event is completed — this incident will likely be the last, at least for a while. “The Secret Service will learn from their mistakes, and whether this happens again, it is not going to happen soon,” Robinson says.
He cites past issues as evidence: since the Kennedy assassination, no President has ridden in an open-top car, and parade routes are no longer made public. After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, the Secret Service developed protocols for medical emergencies requiring hospitalization and have an agent assigned specifically to that task.
These days, the Secret Service can control not just those who have access to the President but also entire sections of buildings or cities. With agents assigned to sweep for surveillance, cordon off hotels, carry petty cash, man posts on roofs and run the ever increasing layers of security, there isn’t a single person within view of the President who hasn’t gone through at least one screening (another lesson learned from the Reagan assassination attempt).
“They aren’t surrounding the President. They are guarding an area,” Robinson says. “Nothing happens without the Secret Service first having done it.”
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