The Secret Service’s Not-So-Secret Alcohol Problem

Why does the sex always divert our attention from the alcohol that fuels a scandal?

Last Wednesday, in Cartagena, Columbia, 11 men in the Secret Service’s advance team, including snipers and explosives experts, not to mention two supervisors, spent a wild night drinking in a local bar, and then bringing as many as 21 (legal) prostitutes back to their hotel—the same hotel in which President Obama stayed upon his arrival a day later.

While out on the town, they visited various clubs, including one called the Pleyclub, where one group of them bought two bottles of Absolut vodka for the table, and where some were said to openly boast about being members of the president’s security detail. According to some accounts, they were armed and partying.

Back at the hotel, there were complaints from other guests about the noise coming from the floor on which the Secret Service was staying.

Without the whisky there probably would have been no prostitutes, no violation of top-secret security clearances, no potential exposure to blackmail or espionage—just another boring night on call.

They got busted in the morning when the local police arrived at the hotel to intervene in a fight when one of the prostitutes made a scene because her john was reportedly trying to fleece her on the fee. According to the escort, he told her that he had been drunk when he agreed to pay $800 for her services.

One hotel worker reported seeing what looked to him like lines of cocaine on a table amid the litter of empty whisky bottles. At press time, three agents had been “removed” from the service, and drug-testing of others was being discussed.

The “Secret Service Sex Scandal” is now all over the news. The outrage is focused not on the drinking but on the prostitutes, as if it were somehow acceptable for America’s most critical law-enforcement team, for whom maintaining their own secrecy is paramount, to make a public spectacle while getting hammered and then inviting strangers back to their hotel, where confidential information about the president’s itinerary was reportedly kept.

Colombia, remember, is a nation crawling with armed terrorists of both the Narco and the Maoist variety.

President Obama, remember, has received four times as many death threats as any other president.

Quis custodiat ipsos custodes? as the Roman poet Juvenal asked back when law enforcement wore togas and Scoth had not been invented. Who is guarding the guards?

This may be a sex scandal, but it is primarily a drinking scandal—without the booze there would almost certainly have been no prostitutes, no violation of top-secret security clearances, no potential exposure to blackmail or espionage. Rather than taking huge risks, the agents would probably have stayed in their hotel rooms playing cards or watching TV—another boring night on call.

“We’re representing the people of the United States and when we travel to another county I expect us to observe the highest standards,” President Obama said at a news conference in Cartagena, where the scandal overshadowed predicted rows over the war on drugs. “Obviously what’s been reported doesn’t match up with those standards.”

Observing the highest standards has often proved trying for the Secret Service, an organization founded in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln—bizarrely, on the day before he was assassinated. Reports of hard drinking among its agents are nothing new. Traditionally (and in spite of recent efforts at reform), the Secret Service has been the ultimate work hard/play hard old boy’s club.

The most serious misconduct by a Secret Service advance team occurred on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Six members of the president’s security detail were seen drinking at the local press club until 3 a.m., and then reportedly took the party to an after-hours club. Less than six hours later, President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in his motorcade.

We are only as sick as our Secret Service.

On a lighter note, after she got clean and sober in 1978, First Lady Betty Ford used to joke with friends about the effects of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she attended on her Secret Service detail. Because they had to stay be her side at all times, she said, quite a few of them ended up getting sober themselves.

The real scandal underlying the current sex scandal involves the conduct we accept—and even expect—from young (and not so young) men in our society. It’s still not ladylike to be a drunk, but young men are pressured to prove their capacity to binge almost as a rite of passage: to tie one on, to party hearty, to drink like a man.

The type of person drawn to the Secret Service—and similar “special teams” in the military and law enforcement—are frequently those who are “drawn to adventure of other types,” Steven Moore, a former SWAT agent, blogged on Ground Report. “Some of the participants in the party that got out of hand in the president’s hotel were allegedly members of the Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team (CAT). When on SWAT, I worked with CAT teams during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. They are no different than many other special teams operators—seeking action on and off duty, and easily bored.”

Wheels up, rings off, they reportedly tell each other. In this case, the president had not yet landed, but when you’ve had a few too many drinks the difference between wheels up and wheels down can seem beside the point. One problem with the idea that people in high-pressure jobs need to take the pressure off by getting legless is that alcohol doesn’t clear the body for at least 10 hours—and then what happens is often not very pretty.

Six members of the president’s security detail were drinking at an after-hours club in Dallas. Less than eight hours later, President Kennedy was shot dead in his motorcade.

Who makes a better presidential guard: a drunk, someone with a killer hangover, or someone whose mind is on the next time they will be able to get drunk? None of the above.

If the 11 Secret Service agents waiting in Cartagena for the president to arrive had been, say, six men and five women, I deeply doubt that there would have been any scandal to report. Fewer than 20% of Secret Service members are women, and except in movies they don’t seem to get assigned to many presidential motorcades. But one way to dilute the risk-taking, danger-seeking compulsion of all-male groups, whether sports teams, college frats, military units, street gangs, C-suites, would be to make them a mixed culture.

According to some reports, that’s exactly what the Secret Service did to deal with the emergency in Cartagena: They flew some female agents in to replace the miscreants and otherwise supplement the president’s security detailing.

So are women really less fit to guard our president than men? Perhaps we will have to wait for a woman president to find out.

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