TIMOTHY NOAH APRIL 25, 2012
Two indicators I use to confirm whether a brewing government scandal is a trivial media circus are
a.) Whether Mitt Romney feels inspired to utter the phrase "clean house";
b.) Whether Sen. Joe Lieberman says on Fox News that he takes the problem "very seriously."
Both conditions have been met in the Secret Service scandal, about which homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano received a televised grilling at a Senate Judiciary committee hearing this morning (one that was theoretically about cybersecurity).
In her opening statement, Napolitano said "a full and thorough investigation is underway, to determine exactly what transpired." Asked by committee chairman Pat Leahy, D.-Vt., whether Secret Service agents are instructed "how they may interact with locals when they're on foreign assignments," Napolitano gave kind of a vague answer. So Leahy followed up: "Is there training given to agents relating to private or intimate contact with foreign nationals when traveling for security work?" Napolitano answered: "The training is focused on professionalism, on conduct consistent with the highest moral values and standards, and I think that would include your question." Translation: No.
Secret Service agents are not instructed, specifically, about whether they may hire prostitutes, in jurisdictions where prostitution is legal, during their off hours, or whether they may enjoy any other type of sexual congress with the locals. An unidentified government official told the New York Times that he or she learned at a Secret Service briefing held in the wake of the scandal that when agents are sent to Amsterdam they may not smoke marijuana, which is legal there. What about hiring a prostitute, which is also legal there? There's no explicit rule governing that (probably likelier) indulgence. What about unpaid private or intimate contact? The official quoted in the Times related that, "asked whether there was anything explicit in their rules and regulations that said anything about whether one of their personnel could spend the night with a woman in a foreign country," the Secret Service official "said they would have to get back to us on that, and they haven’t."
Surely the unspoken rule till now has been that traveling Secret Service agents may go to prostitutes provided they receive, um, secret service. Try as I may to be shocked or angered by this variation on "don't ask, don't tell," I cannot. A gay person employed by the government should not be forced to hide his or her sexual orientation. But neither should a john employed by the government be encouraged to over-share with his or her superiors. They'd rather not know. I'd rather not know. Unless of course it gets in the way of getting in the way of an assassin's bullet.
What we've learned so far in the investigation suggests that although members of Congress have huffed and puffed about the prospect that security might have been compromised by the presence of foreign nationals in the hotel where Secret Service were staying, the Secret Service does not believe that was a danger. Napolitano told today's hearing that secure information was never at risk. Severity of punishment appears, instead, to depend on degree of naughtiness.
One agent apparently was "cleared of serious misconduct," according to the Times, because he "had taken a woman to his hotel unaware that she was a prostitute until she demanded money." He will still "face disciplinary action," but it seems to me that he ought to be reassigned on the grounds that he lacks the powers of observation necessary to protect his commander-in-chief. It's not clear from the Times account whether this guy, "who refused to pay and told her to leave," was the same one whose tight-fistedness created the fracas ("Baby, my cash money") that first brought hotel security to the room and, ultimately, the world's attention to the Secret Service's wild night in Cartagena. If so, perhaps this person should be fired, since the true offense was a lack of discretion.
Another Secret Service man, identified by the Times as single, took a woman who was not, in fact, a prostitute, back to the hotel. We don't know what will happen to him but the Times story seems to imply that he, too, faces a lesser punishment, even though, if security were truly the concern, he would have created an identical risk that secret information could be obtained by foreign terrorists. (So would anyone who let in a hotel maid to clean the bathroom.) The Times story further implies, but does not spell out, that the Secret Service has different (perhaps unspoken) rules governing the extracurricular activities of married and unmarried agents. But is an agent's fidelity to his marriage vows really the Secret Service's business? This is, after all, a job that requires you to be extremely uninterested in the president's fidelity to his (or her) marriage vows. Surely it's a topic best avoided altogether.
One matter about which the Secret Service is unconcerned, but perhaps should be, is whether all the Secret Service men who hired prostitutes actually had sex with them. According to the Washington Post, some of them were too drunk to get their money's worth. I'm not sure a uniform standard making the hiring the offense is appropriate. I don't say this to excuse whichever agents failed to get private or intimate. Quite the opposite. If protecting the president is our chief concern, shouldn't we worry about these individuals' physical stamina? At the very least they should be required to receive a medical evaluation.
My ultimate point here, of course, is that when you think too hard about any of this it all gets pretty silly pretty fast. Some Secret Service embarrassed the president and should be disciplined for doing so. End of story. I don't want to investigate whether Secret Service have misbehaved before during off-hours--of course they have--and I don't want to pretend that any of this had anything to do with the president's physical safety--of course it didn't. But the investigating and the pretending are only just getting started.