We’re all human.
That’s what a top law enforcement official said helps explain the Secret Service’s latest alcohol-induced escapade in which one agent reportedly became so drunk he passed out in a hotel hallway ahead of President Obama’s trip to Europe this week.
The Secret Service, like the FBI, is “an organization of human beings,” the bureau’s director, James Comey, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today, just hours after reports surfaced of three Secret Service agents sent home for drinking shortly before the president arrived in Amsterdam earlier this week. “Human beings, as am I, are flawed. And there are going to be problems.”
Comey said the key was to “root out” the problems “and try to put in place remedies that we don't just repeat the problem all over again." In fact, the Secret Service tried to do just that in the wake of the prostitution scandal two years ago, when several Secret Service agents solicited prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, while preparing for a presidential visit in April 2012.
Among other new rules, Secret Service agents were prohibited from drinking any alcohol within 10 hours of reporting for duty, and no alcohol could be consumed at the president’s hotel once the president arrived. Patronizing so-called “non-reputable establishments” was also added to the list of no-nos.
Here is a list of agency policies and “enhanced codes of conduct” the then-director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, announced in the wake of the Cartagena scandal:
- All laws of the United States shall apply to Secret Service personnel while abroad.
- Standards of conduct briefings will be conducted for all protective visits, events and National Special Security Events, as well as prior to Secret Service personnel traveling aboard military aircraft prior to departure for a foreign country.
- The U.S. Department of State Regional Security Officer will work with the Secret Service advanced team to provide intensified country-specific briefings immediately upon arrival in a foreign country. The briefings will update personnel on safety issues, off-limit zones and off-limit establishments for Secret Service personnel, and any country-specific rules imposed by the Ambassador.
- Foreign nationals, excluding hotel staff and official law enforcement counterparts, are prohibited from all Secret Service personnel hotel rooms.
- Patronization of non-reputable establishments is prohibited.
- Alcohol may only be consumed in moderate amounts while off-duty on a temporary duty assignment and alcohol use is prohibited within 10 hours of reporting for duty.
- Alcohol may not be consumed at the protectee hotel once the protective visit has begun.
The three Secret Service agents caught up in the latest misstep, first reported by the Washington Post, were members of an elite counter-assault team who were drinking Saturday night into Sunday morning. Responsible for evacuating the president and others in the event of an attack, the agents were supposed to attend a classified briefing hours later to discuss the president’s arrival the next day.
An extensive, 18-month investigation released three months ago by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, who oversees the Secret Service, concluded that the agency does not breed a culture of such misbehavior.
"Although individual employees have engaged in misconduct or inappropriate behavior, we did not find evidence that misconduct is widespread" or that "employees frequently engage in behaviors ... that could cause a security concern," according to the report. "Furthermore, we did not find any evidence that [Secret Service] leadership has fostered an environment that tolerates inappropriate behavior.”
The internal watchdog's investigators reviewed records, surveyed more than 2,500 employees and interviewed more than 200 supervisors, managers and senior officials. Overall, the report cited 824 incidents of employee misconduct over the past nine years, ranging from offenses such as "sleeping on the job" to "drugs and alcohol." In that same time period, the Secret Service suspended an employee's security clearance 195 times for alleged misconduct, with those suspensions becoming more frequent in recent years and nearly one-in-ten involving sexual behavior "that could cause a security concern."
Still, the inspector general's report concluded Secret Service employees "do not frequently engage in behavior that causes a security concern."
Sullivan, the former director, echoed that sentiment during a Senate hearing in May 2012 on the Cartagena scandal, when he apologized "for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction it has caused."
"The overwhelming majority of the men and women who serve in this agency exemplify our five core values of justice, duty, courage, honesty and loyalty," he testified. "On a daily basis, they are prepared to lay down their lives to protect others in service to the country. ... Clearly, the misconduct that took place in Cartagena, Colombia, is not representative of these volumes and of the high ethical standards we demand from our nearly 7,000 employees."
At today’s hearing on Capitol Hill, one lawmaker expressed concern that incidents in Cartagena and Amsterdam “create a circumstance where we get less support from the public.”
"Much of the country's attention will be focused on [the drinking], rather than the Secret Service agents who are risking their lives today to protect the president and are prepared to do anything that's necessary. They won't get much attention," Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., told Comey during the unrelated House Appropriations subcommittee hearing this morning.
Comey agreed, saying, "There's no doubt that our problems get bigger headlines -- all of us in government -- than our successes.”