A Secret Service scandal in 2012 involving alcohol and prostitutes led to new rules specifying that, while traveling for work, “alcohol may only be consumed in moderate amounts.” Now, the agency is in the spotlight again after an agent was reportedly found passed out inebriated on the floor of an Amsterdam hotel last Sunday, only hours ahead of the president’s arrival in the country.
Tuesday night, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan acknowledged that the agency “did send three employees home for disciplinary reasons.” According to a source who spoke with the Associated Press, two agents weren’t drinking themselves, but were disciplined for failing to intervene with the hallway sleeper. All three were placed on an administrative leave and sent back to the United States according to the Washington Post, which first broke the story.
The agents involved are reported to be members of the Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team, an elite unit whose mission is to engage potential threats and present themselves as targets so other agents can escort the president away from danger.
Charged with guarding the president’s life, the Secret Service had been known for keeping a low profile while maintaining high standards of professionalism before a series of negative incidents tarnished the group’s reputation.
The modern era of Secret Service scandals began in April 2012 with a group of agents stationed in Cartagena, Colombia ahead of a presidential visit. A night of drunken carousing ended in a quarrel between a prostitute and an agent she insisted owed her money for services rendered. That incident resulted in an investigation involving eleven Secret Service agents suspected of drinking and soliciting prostitutes, individuals in other federal agencies and members of the military.
The Colombia charges prompted the Secret Service to conduct its own internal review into misconduct within the agency and later led to a separate investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Based on more than 200 interviews and the results of 2,575 agents surveyed, the inspector general’s report found that 10 percent of respondents knew of incidents when colleagues’ excessive drinking led to security concerns. Among those who acknowledged knowing of other agents being drunk, 20 percent said that excessive drinking was "systemic throughout the service."
Overall, the inspector general report concluded that misconduct was not widespread within the agency, but the review process still led to new, stricter rules about drinking and a more explicit prohibition against agents engaging with prostitutes.
Less than two years after the agency made international headlines, and with a report from the inspector general and the agency’s own new rules in place, yet another debacle involving booze and frat boyish behavior has the Secret Service back in the public eye.
How could an organization that thoroughly screens and trains its applicants for one of the nation’s highest priority security jobs keep having incidents like these?
Members of the Secret Service train for evasive driving and worst-case scenario shootouts but, as with the military, most of their time is actually spent waiting, finding ways to fill the hours while travelling from city to city.
An agent actively guarding the president probably doesn’t need a reminder about what to do or how to behave, that’s when all the training kicks in; it’s while that agent is in a foreign city waiting for the president to arrive that they’re more likely to let their guard down, and potentially break the rules if they don’t fear punishment for lapses in professional conduct.
From my own experience in the military and being around law enforcement communities, I’ve seen, broadly, two types of people who volunteer for the most high profile and demanding assignments.
First, there are the rigid, often religiously motivated characters who are driven by a strict sense of purpose and order that they channel into their work and maintain in their regimented personal lives. Then, there are the hard chargers, who want the greatest challenge and the high stakes for the thrill and the sense of personal accomplishment. Many of the esteemed soldiers I knew in the army belonged to the second type, but they’re also the group that needs to be most closely supervised in the off hours because they’re more prone to drawing negative attention.
Avoiding these types of incidents doesn’t mean that the Secret Service needs to fill its ranks with choirboys or candy stripers, but it does require delivering swift and appropriate punishment when agents are found snoring on hotel floors, and establishing a real zero-tolerance policy for rule breakers.
Enforcing the guidelines and ensuring that the social culture doesn’t impact job performance is the role of the agency’s supervisors, the institutional leaders, and, when they have failed, the external oversight bodies. It’s also their job to ensure that they don’t embarrass the president. Again.
Editor's Note: This article was updated with additional information.