NOT SO SECRET SERVICES

“What goes on in Cartagena stays in Cartagena.” At least that was the ops plan.

This week the Secret Service revoked the security clearances of the eleven agents involved in the Colombian prostitution scandal. Employment (and significantly, continued employment) as a Secret Service agent requires several things, and arguably the most important is a Top Secret clearance. When agents’ conduct falls short of expectations, even if their behavior is legal, clearances can and are revoked. Without a clearance, an agent is no longer employable.

Special Agents, whether FBI, Secret Service or any of the myriad of other federal law enforcement agencies, know going in that they will be held to higher standards than the average citizen. For example, they are prohibited from engaging in many legal activities, such as campaigning for a political candidate, taking a second job or writing books without authorization. They are on call 24/7/365, and know that certain behaviors which would be no more than personal speed-bumps in other people’s lives and careers would be career-enders in the Bureau. A DUI, a bankruptcy, marrying the “wrong” person or even a bad credit rating could jeopardize their clearances and therefore their jobs. I’ve seen an FBI agent fired for arguing loudly with his wife in public.

The truth of these special expectations is obvious when you realize that approximately 21 U.S. government personnel have been sent home from Colombia under investigation. 11 were Secret Service, and the rest were U.S. military. Have you seen many headlines on the military involvement? America has certain expectations of Secret Service agents.

Though the agents in Colombia were apparently not breaking any Colombian or American law, they embarrassed the United States. If you wonder if that’s true, check out what Al Jazeera is doing with the story. Every agent is aware that sex (and/or blackmail following sex) can and is used by foreign governments to elicit information from their targets. Whether it is legal prostitution or a girl (or guy) targeting an agent at a bar, blackmail is always a possibility, especially when the agent is married. Additionally, a common form of robbery in some parts of the world is picking up and drugging a “John” in order to rob him. Some men who pick up hookers wake up in the morning finding nothing left in their room but the underwear they never got a chance to take off.  Agents overseas who do not believe that they are being watched and evaluated for exploitation by intelligence agencies of even some “friendly” governments, are naïve.

Secret Service agents know as much or more than other agents about the potential implications of “risky” behavior because they’re in the business of personnel protection. These agents had no excuse. Likely, however, if only one agent had been involved, this would never have made the news. If the problem was discovered by the Secret Service, it never would have made the news. Instead, the State Department was involved when Colombian police complained to the Embassy. The size and scope of this particular incident was epic and the lack of discretion Biblical. A drunken party at the official hotel with a dozen hookers, loud enough to cause noise complaints? Then you argue with a hooker about price? I think clearances might be in jeopardy just for lack of judgment while displaying lack of judgment.

The Secret Service, like the FBI, has within its structure an organization known as the Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR. OPR, as the name might suggest, does not simply investigate agents engaging in illegal activities, but legal activities prohibited by their special employment. The Justice Department (parent organization of the FBI) and Homeland Security (parent organization of the Secret Service) have their own Offices of Professional Responsibility. Secret Service and the FBI have fought for years to maintain the autonomy of conducting their own internal investigations. They have done that by having tough, unforgiving OPR investigations and punishments.

However, in this case, it is clear that the public will not accept an internal investigation as legitimate. Homeland Security will indeed swoop in and conduct the investigation. Likely congress will also conduct hearings. It is crucial that the investigation be open and comprehensive. This behavior did not begin in Colombia. A complete investigation of the activities of Secret Service agents on foreign travel for years in the past will likely follow. Regardless of the outcome, the Secret Service will be less autonomous now than it was before the Colombia scandal.

The U.S. government has some soul-searching to do in this case, however. Throughout the history of the U.S. military, it has been a given that a significant number of soldiers, sailors and airmen, when on leave soon find two things very quickly; alcohol and prostitutes. This has never been a secret from the American public. Towns like Olongopo, just outside the sprawling U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines were at one time little more than support communities for the brothels on Magsaysay street. Navy Shore Patrol (police) patrolled Olongopo not to curtail prostitution, but simply to keep order.  Anywhere in the world where a U.S. military base sprang up, so did brothels. The military will have a hard time defining the location of the line crossed, given the tolerance it has displayed in the past.

It is a mistake to believe that non-military Americans are altogether different than military Americans. Agents involved in U.S. government business, whether State Department, Justice Department or Homeland Security are not taking advantage of lax local laws and women when overseas. It is also a mistake to believe that the U.S. government has until now done anything to discourage this behavior beyond hanging posters about sexually transmitted diseases. When I was first deployed on an overseas assignment with a group of agents, we were not warned to avoid prostitutes, but of the AIDS percentage among prostitutes in the area into which we were deploying. We were then briefed on precautions against STD’s. Don’t think that anybody in the U.S. government didn’t know that this type of behavior was going on.

The only time that this type of activity becomes an issue for the U.S. government is when the discretion is absent among the participants. As a supervisor of overseas personnel, I have had to travel thousands of miles to deal with an agent who transgressed FBI regulations without breaking a single local or U.S. law, but whose behavior created an incident.

Alcohol is cheap and prostitution legal in many South American cities, including the now infamous Cartagena, Colombia. I overflew Cartagena last week on my way back from a case in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Prostitution is also legal and plentiful in Santa Cruz, also. Brothels on the main streets combine with strip clubs where customers can bring girls home for a fee. Like Las Vegas, many Americans for one reason or another are tempted to engage in activities when away from home that they would never consider when near home. Perhaps a psychologist would be a better person to speculate on why that is. But the seeming lack of accountability, pennies-on-the-dollar prices, and incredible availability are factors. To many men, it’s like an outlet mall for sex. The type of person drawn to military and law enforcement special teams are frequently the types of people drawn to adventure of other types. Some of the participants in the party which got out of hand in the president’s hotel were allegedly members of the Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team (CAT). When on SWAT, I worked with CAT teams during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. They are no different than many other special teams “operators;” seeking action on and off duty, and easily bored.

I know people party and release tension when traveling on business. It is true that overseas deployments are some of the more stressful assignments. Like Hillary Clinton last week, I too have blown off some steam in overseas establishments which serve alcohol (but not women). There are limits, however to the license one may take. In the FBI you are never officially off-duty. One would have to assume that when the president is in-country, Secret Service agents must be ready to be on duty at any second. Judging from the cases they carried, they were armed. Could they have responded to a presidential threat? Would they have been functional or even sober? These are questions that must be answered.

Most troubling to me though is that this behavior was tolerated, enabled, condoned and/or facilitated by the supervisor(s) of the agents. Misbehavior on such a scale could not have occurred without supervisor knowledge. Or in this case, participation. When the boss is at the party, there’s reason to believe it’s sanctioned, or at least that the higher-ups are looking the other way. Or they were until the police and the Embassy got involved. I’m reminded of the scene in Casablanca when Vichy French Captain Louis Renault is told by the Gestapo to close down Rick’s Café Americain. As he is being handed his roulette winnings for the night he exclaims,

“I’m shocked! Shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here!”

No, this was officially condoned behavior at least at some level and likely not an isolated incident. This activity received de facto authorization by at least the supervisor and likely his superior. The trick will be finding where the buck should truly stop.