The U.S. Secret Service has long earned profound respect from not just the high officials it protects but the public at large. Yet an unseemly scandal now tarnishes that sterling reputation.
If sordid allegations prove true, those at fault must be held to stern account. And if systemic flaws within the agency have played a role in this debacle, they must be corrected as soon as possible.
As of Tuesday, 11 Secret Service agents assigned to advance security for President Barack Obama’s trip to Colombia last week had been put on leave after being accused of involvement a prostitute-hiring “party.” Nine U.S. military members also have reportedly been accused of, at minimum, participating in related “carousing” at the Cartagena hotel where they were part of that advance team.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, succinctly assessed the mess Tuesday at the Pentagon: “We are embarrassed. We let the boss down, because nobody is talking about what went down in Colombia other than this incident.”
According to The Washington Post: “People in Cartagena familiar with the matter said that some of the Secret Service agents paid $60 apiece to owners of the Pleyclub, a strip club in an industrial section of Cartagena, to bring at least two of the women back to the Hotel Caribe, where Obama’s advance team was staying. The following morning, one of the women demanded an additional payment of $170, setting off a dispute with an agent that drew the attention of the hotel, the Cartagena sources said.”
If that account is accurate to a significant degree, additional inquiries are in order to determine if similar “partying” by large groups of the security detail has gone undetected on previous trips abroad.
As the Post story put it: “The accusations are triggering scrutiny of the culture of the Secret Service — where married agents have been heard to joke during aircraft takeoff that their motto is ‘wheels up, rings off’ — and raising new questions at both the agency and the Pentagon about institutional oversight at the highest levels of the president’s security apparatus.”
Those questions demand answers. Neither the Secret Service, which became part of the Homeland Security Department nine years ago after being transferred from the Treasury Department, nor the military can tolerate a “carousing” mindset by top-level security teams.
If the appalling tale from Colombia is ultimately verified, that wouldn’t just reveal crude behavior by top-level security experts while creating a public-relations fiasco. It would expose a stunning security risk, including a reckless vulnerability to blackmail.
It also would unfairly taint the many brave, effective and thoroughly professional men and women of the Secret Service — past, present and future.
So both the Secret Service and the Defense Department must expedite these high-priority missions:
Get the facts of what really happened in Colombia. And get presidential security teams back to being fully focused on protecting our commander in chief.