Defending The Secret Service

by Timothy Noah | April 17, 2012

The more you look at this Secret Service scandal, the less there seems to be. Eleven Secret Service agents and about as many military officials are suspected of hiring prostitutes during their stay in Cartagena, Colombia, in advance of the April 14-15 Summit of the Americas, which President Obama attended. I’m not saying this isn't embarrassing. I’m not saying the wives of these government employees don’t have grounds to be very, very angry with them. I’m not even necessarily saying the Secret Service agents in question shouldn’t be fired. (They are, after all, paid to be inconspicuous.) But why does this rise to the level of public scandal and congressional hearings?

Because they broke the law? That would be true if they’d hired prostitutes in Washington, D.C. But prostitution is legal in Colombia. Technically it must be confined to certain designated “tolerance zones,” which might not include the Hotel Caribe, where they were staying. But according to the U.S. State department Colombia’s enforcement of this restriction is pretty sketchy. Cartagena apparently attracts a fair amount of sex tourism. So it’s not as though these U.S. government representatives were corrupting a foreign nation. If anything, it was the other way around. The cops were called not because there was evidence of prostitution but because one of the prostitutes violated a hotel rule (seemingly designed with hanky-panky in mind) that required visitors of registered guests to leave by 7 a.m. There was also a dispute about how much one of the prostitutes ought to be paid. Had such a dispute occurred over a restaurant bill, we wouldn’t be hearing about it.

Obviously you don’t want people who are supposed to be guarding the president wandering off to pick up prostitutes, but these officials weren’t part of Obama’s immediate security detail. Obama wasn’t even there. The activity occurred during off hours.

These facts leave investigators struggling to define precisely what the offense was.

Rep. Peter King, R.-N.Y., who chairs the House homeland security committee, suggests that the Secret Service and military officials were being “irresponsible” because “One of those prostitutes could be paid by terror to infiltrate and hear what’s going on.” The hotel constituted a “security zone” where confidential information about the president’s comings and goings might have been accessed. But it isn’t clear that the hotel rooms in question contained any computers or other electronic devices containing sensitive information about the president’s comings and goings. If the concern is that a foreign national might have accessed such information, what about the hotel maids? What about any other hotel employee who had access to the room? Does the Secret Service manual forbid room service? Are unmarried Secret Service agents required by law to date only U.S. citizens?

The Pentagon has reportedly charged the military participants with violating curfew, which seems a reach. Would the Pentagon be appeased if its troops had arrived with their prostitutes at the Hotel Caribe a little earlier in the evening? King and Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., suggest that hiring prostitutes opened the participants up to blackmail, but it doesn’t seem as though anybody was struggling very hard to keep his whoring a secret from the others. Once 40 people are in a position to know that you’ve cheated on your wife, your susceptibility to blackmail is close to zero. And anyway, former Secret Service agent Dan Emmett told ABC News, “The Secret Service is not an intelligence organization, it’s law enforcement.” If I were a prostitute hired by al-Qaida to set up someone for blackmail, I’d choose a spy, not a cop.

According to Sen. Susan Collins, R.-Me., and the ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, Secret Service director Mark Sullivan believes “the most important quality for a Secret Service officer is character—and if the facts prove to be as reported on this, this is an incredible lack of character and breach of security.” Actually, the most important quality for a Secret Service officer isn’t character. The most important quality is how good that officer is at spotting snipers, throwing his body over the president, and doing various other things to protect his commander-in-chief. He (or she) can be a pretty awful person in every other respect so long as he’s able to carry out those particular duties reliably and with consummate skill. Though I’ll grant that you wouldn’t want his (or her) awfulness be so public in nature as to embarrass the U.S. government.

On the other hand, it seems pretty unfair to scapegoat the Secret Service for one wild night in Cartagena after at least two presidents disported themselves like drunken conventioneers with women not their wives, one of them girlfriend to a mobster and two of them White House interns (aged 19 and 25). If blackmail is really a threat, then the likelier role for a Secret Service agent is blackmailer, not blackmail-ee. Unlike Secret Service agents, presidents have a lot more than their marriages to lose should bad behavior—or even mild offenses like speculating, in private, about whether the Rev. Billy Graham might be a charlatan—become common knowledge. Naughty behavior by 11 guys in dark glasses who talk into their wristwatches isn’t something for America to lose sleep over.

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