What happened to clean cut, serious Secret Service agents in suits with earpieces and dark sunglasses? Where are the dedicated professionals who would take a bullet for those they protect? A series of bad choices by the advance security team for President Obama’s trip to the Summit of Americas in Cartagena, Columbia have left the U.S. Secret Service struggling to save its reputation.
The Secret Service prostitution scandal continues to get a lot of media coverage. “Hookergate” stories focus on the drunken behavior of the team and how they allegedly brought as many as 20 prostitutes to their hotel and then tried to cheat them out of their money. The paramount concerns are that members of the team violated top secret security clearances by boasting about their affiliation with the president and that they put foreign nationals into contact with sensitive security information that could have been passed on to terrorists or drug cartel leaders. The latest headlines wonder if they were using taxpayer dollars from their “per diem” to pay the prostitutes. The actions of a few have jeopardized the image of the entire agency.
To its credit, the agency moved quickly. It immediately replaced the employees in question. It assured everyone that security had not been compromised. The director, Mark Sullivan, apologized and initiated an internal investigation. His swift reaction was text book crisis communications. There was obviously a plan in place including holding statements, messages and protocols for a fast response. Without a detailed, concrete plan, it can be difficult to respond quickly.
Fast action that came down hard on offenders has resonated with the media and the public. So far, the sex scandal has cost six agents their jobs. Five more members of the elite presidential protection agency have been put on leave and are expected to soon be gone. The investigation also includes eleven military personnel. Aside from the internal investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and Congressional leaders have launched their own reviews and yesterday, there were calls from the Senate for an expanded probe that would extend to White House personnel who were assigned to prepare for the President’s trip.
The continuing concern and debate demands full disclosure. When the investigations are complete, transparency will be key. There have been too many situations where organizations have covered for their own. The public wants to know what went wrong and why. And, while you can never say never, it will want to know what measures will be taken to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
The pressure is on. Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney says he would “clean house” at the agency. He contends that there’s been a violation of public trust and that these individuals put “ personal interests ahead of the interests of the nation.”
If the agency is to continue to manage this crisis effectively, it will require full, open disclosure and more action. If the investigation finds this incident was an abnormality…a few guys who made bad choices… it’s an easier fix. Systemic problems will call for more effort. The scandal has raised questions about the culture that exists within the Secret Service. Many consider it arrogant and anti-female. The employees are ninety per cent male. If these broader questions are not answered, lingering negative perceptions could cause lasting damage to the Service’s public image and its once stellar reputation.