Secret Service agents are one category of law enforcement whose agents typically get the glory treatment. Recent books by members of JFK's secret service detail, almost devoid of revelations or candor, have nevertheless received lots of positive coverage. Meanwhile, legitimate questions about the service -- how it works, what kinds of people it employs, how effective it is -- are pushed aside.
Maybe that's why the media reacted with such astonishment to learn that Secret Service agents preparing for Obama's visit to Cartagena, Colombia, consorted with prostitutes. Eight agents have been forced out of their jobs, and a ninth is on his way out. Military personnel along on the trip are under investigation as well. The activity raised questions not only about the appropriateness of such conduct, but of whether this behavior threatened the President's safety.
Just a One-Time Thing, Folks
Now the government is saying that the Cartagena hijinks were an aberration. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano assured the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that the Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility had received zero complaints of agent misconduct in the last two and a half years. That means total good behavior in roughly 900 foreign and 13,000 domestic trips.
But here's the problem: it's the Secret Service assuring us that the Secret Service is squeaky clean. The matter of self-policing came up last week when Napolitano faced the Senate committee. As ABC reports, Napolitano claimed that the Homeland Security Inspector General was supervising the investigation, but the IG's own office said it was merely "monitoring" the Secret Service's self-examination, and would review it when it was complete.
Since the events of April 12, a probe has grown, and investigators are very much just getting started. And not just about Colombia: the Associated Press reported on inquiries into possible Secret Service liaisons with strippers and prostitutes leading up to an Obama visit to El Salvador last year. And some agents are contending that cavorting and drinking heavily is actually quite common.
In fact, there are many other questions about the Secret Service and about presidential security that are not being properly addressed. Coming as we approach the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's violent death, these are not idle concerns.
Obama and Kennedy
As we have noted here previously, the agency has been involved in serious security lapses and misjudgment before. For example, in Obama's first year in office, the agency failed to keep an unauthorized couple with a hankering for publicity from getting into the White House and close to the President -- and there may be more to the story.
Then, in 2011, a classified booklet containing Obama's schedule, down to the minute, along with details on his security contingent, was found lying in a Canberra, Australia, gutter during an Obama visit to that country.
Those incidents are reported to have upset Obama -- and that's certainly understandable. Meanwhile, his trip to Colombia, intended to showcase new trade initiatives with Latin America, was totally overshadowed by the scandal. Presidential trips are carefully calculated to generate positive publicity and create goodwill at home and abroad, so the prostitution sideshow just wiped that one out.
Such incidents are not just bad for image -- they raise all kinds of issues in the safety area. For one thing, the agents themselves are compromised, even made susceptible to pressure and blackmail, particularly if they want to keep their jobs and if, as in numerous cases, the agents were married.
But this is not new. Go back almost half a century, and look at the most shocking dereliction of duty ever -- the failures that made it easy for someone (or someones) to assassinate John F Kennedy. The failings are endless, from not insisting that the bubble top go on Kennedy's car, to having too few Secret Service agents protecting the president, to authorizing a particularly dangerous route that slowed the car way down, to allowing it to go through a canyon of windows -- and then not checking or securing the windows or installing spotters or sharpshooters. A grade school kid could have done a more serious job of protecting the president.
Here's an excerpt from Warren Commission questions to Special Agent Winston Lawson, who headed the Secret Service detail for Kennedy's Dallas trip:
Mr. McCloy: During the course of the motorcade while the motorcade was in motion, no matter how slowly, you had no provision for anyone on the roofs?