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Fun in Cartagena

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.

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#1 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On April 19, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

There is an generational element here in that when we were young, we were expected to be young men. Post feminism and PC, young men are expected to behave like ladies. Of course, lesbians can and should act like men except when they don’t feel like it.

#2 Comment By Kirt Higdon On April 19, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

I’ve heard and read it reported in several places that the President’s schedule and itinerary were left lying around the rooms where the prostitutes were present. So if security was not compromised, that just makes it an extraordinary piece of good luck.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 19, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

There’s been much made of that US federal police officers did nothing that was illegal in the country they were visiting, even if it’s illegal in the USA. So, nothing to see here, folks.

But… does that mean in countries where recreational drug use is legal, unlike the United States, that it is A-OK for those on government junkets to, uh, “toke up” or “shoot up,” or however that is described?

Or, how about in countries that don’t have “underage” limits for sexual consent? Is that acceptable, too, since it’s “legal” over there?

I recall Bill Clinton’s various lawyerly defenses, such as, “I never inhaled,” “I never broke any US laws” etc. and “it depends what is, is”…

Well, I guess so. There’s ample recent precedent.

For instance, Guantanamo is where the government tried to make the argument that US law has no jurisdiction over anything that happens… even though the US government, whose own authority is created and supposedly limited by law, was the only governing authority… and rendition… well, there’s some legal precedence for the principle that “anything goes” when you are acting under the auspices of the executive branch… so these guys, like the CIA, are basically extensions of the executive, in which the President, under the Nixon Doctrine, IS the law. Recall the FBI Handbook that so recently averred that the FBI has the ability to “suspend” the Constitution… and that the Supreme Court ruled their role so important and their integrity so unquestioned, that they need to never be second-guessed on the right to use violence otherwise disallowed on people whose only offense was disagreeing with the war policies of Dick Cheney.

Now famously, a President of a less-gilded age stated, “A President lives on a street, while a King lives in a Palace.”

It rather seems now, that in the age of the Imperial Presidency (with Pennsylvania Avenue now closed) this behavior is more akin to the antics of a privileged aristocracy than that of civil servants of the American public.

“L’etat, c’est moi”?

#4 Comment By Joseph R. Stromberg On April 19, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

Kings used to go on tour to externalize their costs onto their potential noble competitors and bankrupt them. American presidents go on tour because they are accomplished humanists, constructive statesmen, and unequaled world leaders, who don’t care if their ‘security needs’ disrupt most of the traffic in a big urban conflagration (e.g., Atlanta in recent weeks). Their very presence makes everything better and doubtless cures scrofula.

The sooner this malignant office is abolished, the better. Of course we’re not counting on this happening soon.

#5 Comment By tbraton On April 19, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

Hey, you have to give the Secret Service a break. They have a brilliant record of protecting our Presidents. Since their founding in 1865, there have been only four Presidents assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy) and three near misses (FDR, Ford and Reagan).. That is only about 25% (7 out of 29), which is a pretty good ratio.

But then there is the matter of judgment. Did those guys stop and think how they were contributing to our balance of payments problem by paying foreign hookers?

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 20, 2012 @ 2:23 am

There is a certain hypocrisy to our imposing extraterritorial US law on foreign persons and companies even going so far as demanding extradition for their violating US law – in their own countries – while claims are made that our own officials are not bound by US norms while overseas, even for behavior for which they may have others arrested for back in the US.

The law is for thee, but not me?

Nor do I believe it is particularly enlightened to see prostitution as just another legitimate job opportunity, that advanced nations unlike ourselves have approved. In Spain, which has legalized it, there are now severe problems as a result with sex slavery with hundreds of thousands abused. Legalization has worsened the problem of human trafficking, not solved it. One might as well believe that by legalizing the immorality of slavery, you have solved the serious problems associated with slavery, rather than abolishing its ills.

#7 Comment By Scott Locklin On April 20, 2012 @ 5:43 am

Thomas Meehan nailed it above. Men are now expected to be eunuchs. Older married gentlemen have no idea what has happened to the younger generations. “Old fashioned” gender norms are completely out of sync with the legal system, societal norms and the prevailing wisdom. I mean, you must have noticed that modern society does weird things like send women into combat zones in the army.

#8 Comment By sal magundi On April 20, 2012 @ 8:28 am

“The feeding frenzy is the media and among outraged members of congress … is a bit hard to comprehend.”

well it’s an election year, and, more important i think, it happened in obama’s presidency.

#9 Comment By Jim Bovard On April 20, 2012 @ 8:32 am

Perhaps some of the media interest in this story is the result of the perennial portraying of federal law enforcement agents as saints. If Secret Service agents had not been so exalted in the past, perhaps there would be scant interest in a loud squabble over the proper piece rate payment.

#10 Comment By John Cumpston On April 20, 2012 @ 10:28 am

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but am I the only one who thinks what these guys did is wrong? First of all, just because “everybody does it” doesn’t make it acceptable behavior. These agents represent the executive government of the country, and this behavior is definitely unbecoming. Moreover, they posed significant security risks. Colombia is not exactly the safest country. Just last week the FARC released hostages after 14 years. But what am I saying? We arm these folks after all. I guess we shouldn’t be made to set a moral example. Did I mention how much tax money is spent on these guys? That means that your tax dollars are being used for sex. And these guys are never actually “off duty.” Add up all the politicos that still use secret service and it starts to add up. I think it is awful from a diplomatic and publicity point of view. I suppose it never occurs to anyone that these women are continually exploited, even with their consent.

#11 Comment By Philip Giraldi On April 20, 2012 @ 11:12 am

I’ve also seen it reported that they did not have the advance schedule, but the consensus appears to be that there was no security compromise.

#12 Comment By tbraton On April 20, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

“Maybe I’m old fashioned, but am I the only one who thinks what these guys did is wrong? First of all, just because “everybody does it” doesn’t make it acceptable behavior.”

John Cumpston, despite the levity (in case anyone missed it) of my post, I totally agree with you that these agents showed apallling judgment and are not the kind of people who should be safeguarding the life of the President—even one I strongly disagree with like Barack Obama.

#13 Comment By dour sr fed On April 20, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

I agree with John Cumpston. Boys will be boys and all that, but these guys sound like idiots of both the mental and moral kind. If I were doing the “investigation” it would have been over a few days ago. That there was no security compromise is a matter of sheer luck – if in fact there was none, which remains to be seen.

#14 Comment By John Doe On April 20, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

If one wants to say that boys will be boys, that’s fine. But if you’re secret service, that means you play by big boy rules. Big boy rules are that if you create an international incident with hookers and drugs, you will probably get fired. Or forced to resign. WITH your pension. Am I supposed to feel bad for these guys? The fact that the president showed up a few days later to tell everybody that we shouldn’t legalize drugs didn’t help matters.

#15 Comment By John Doe On April 20, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

“Did I mention how much tax money is spent on these guys? That means that your tax dollars are being used for sex.”

This is ridiculous. Unless they billed the services of the prostitutes to a government account, why shouldn’t they be allowed to have sex? Presumably these men also defecated and urinated on the trip. Should they be forced to hold it in while overseas because it’s “tax payer money at work” and they are “never actually off duty”? I don’t want to pay people to pee! Physicians receive tax money for services rendered. Physicians have sex. Does that mean our tax dollars are being used for physicians to have sex? I hate wasted tax money as much or more than the next guy, but let’s not start imposing no sex for anybody rules just yet.

The bottom line is they got caught with their pants down. And now they’re getting fired. Oops. Like I said before, if these guys want to play by big boy rules, that’s fine. Just don’t go crying to mommy when you get fired for not paying your hooker.

#16 Comment By Joe Cloud On April 21, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

This is surprising that we still have the double standard. Posters who took great delight in calling women who wanted insurance coverage for birth control pills as “sluts” now shrug off the Secret Service orgy as “boys will be boys, and should be allowed to”

#17 Comment By Bill Pearlman On April 21, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

Part of the problem is the fact that we have 600 secret service agents running around on these trips with not all of them having anything to do.

#18 Comment By Andy On April 22, 2012 @ 8:50 am

I heard that they stiffed the hookers paying far less than agreed previously.That gives the USA a black eye among the locals and could lead to a lack of support for the USA. The Secret Service like all other gov’t employees are representing the USA and need to act honorably. If alcohol and prostitution are legal, at least do it in a way that serves the USA honorably

#19 Comment By James Canning On April 22, 2012 @ 10:57 am

Great piece.

#20 Comment By Jimmy Olsen On April 22, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

There are at least a few parallels to with the recent General Service Administration junkets to Vegas.

The government is gorged on the money it prints and extracts from taxpayers, so much so that it can apparently afford to blow it on decadent parties for its debauched, incompetent employees.