I am having a problem in wrapping my head around the recent Secret Service scandal. The tale of the sins and omissions of the Obama Secret Service team in Colombia is still being revealed, piece by piece. The miscreants constituted a so-called advance team, flying on a military aircraft, which goes into a location where a protected official is going to be present. The advance team liaises with local police and security personnel at the US Embassy or Consulate. It checks out security at the airport, along the route of travel on the ground, at the hotel, and at the various venues where meetings will take place. It writes up reports so the team that actually travels with the president will be prepared to provide a security envelope, working with the locals. The advance team members normally leave well before the president arrives.
All of which is to say that the advance team members are not actually protecting anyone and are basically doing a survey to improve the level of security for someone who will follow. They are not normally on twenty-four hour duty and, in my experience, they tend to be unmarried young men who frequently take advantage of the opportunity provided by foreign travel to hit some bars and try to meet some women. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Now admittedly, the narrative as it is playing out regarding more than a score of prostitutes and extreme inebriation demonstrates a complete lack of discretion and is certainly over the top, but I have to think their crime is a matter of degree rather than commission unless there were indiscretions relating to what they were doing that might have compromised the security of their mission, which does not appear to be the case. It seems clear that they did not discuss what they were working on in Colombia with the women and there was no compromise of sensitive information.
Not to belabor the issue, but during my time in CIA I certainly knew many government officials who, when traveling, regularly and openly indulged in excessive intake of alcohol and prostitutes without anyone at State Department or CIA even raising an eyebrow. Indeed, in some circles it was viewed as the manly thing to do. In the Colombia incident, if one of the Secret Service officers had not gotten into a fight with a prostitute over her compensation everything would have ended quietly and there would have been no story at all to tell.
Traveling on the government dime, referred to as TDY, is frequently regarded as an excuse to behave badly. I recall that while I was in Barcelona as CIA Chief a certain US Ambassador with a roving (joke intended) assignment in Europe would frequently arrange to visit the city and invariably call me to ask what bars would be best for picking up women. He would be very explicit in describing what he was looking for. When I complained to the State Department’s inspector general about the calls on security grounds, that he was casually discussing my CIA status on the phone, it was treated as a joke. I also hosted teams of CIA visitors in town periodically. If they were young guys intent on seeing the city I would warn them about which areas were dangerous but let it go at that. If they were doing their jobs, what they did in their spare time, as long as it was not illegal or compromised government secrets, was not my business. I trusted them to have enough sense not to reveal any sensitive information and, as far as I know, they never did.
So my initial reaction is, “Why the fuss?” The demands to hang these men out to dry coming from both the Obamas and Mitt Romney are only reasonable if the team was operating under standing orders or guidelines explicitly detailing what constituted unacceptable behavior while overseas, which I doubt was the case. Which suggests that in this instance the team, and its supervisors, are mostly guilty of exercising bad judgment, a transgression that normally means they would be reassigned to other duties. One should note in passing that prostitution is legal in Colombia as is drinking for anyone over the age of sixteen. The resort to prostitutes by visitors to Cartagena is so institutionalized that the hotel where the Secret Service team was staying had a policy in place that they should be out of the room by 6:30 a.m.
All right, so let’s accept that the Secret Service team should be punished somehow for behaving badly and exercising poor judgment in a high level situation in which at least a modicum of personal restraint was called for, but no one was placed in danger and no one was really hurt. The feeding frenzy is the media and among outraged members of congress, where sexual transgressions of all types and alcoholism are far from uncommon, is a bit hard to comprehend.