WASHINGTON -- Who is minding the store?
It seems a fair question with front pages, TV and the Internet full of sensational stories, blogs and twitters about obvious government malfeasance from the FBI to the Secret Service to the General Services Administration.
At first glance, the vaunted Secret Service was more concerned about some after-dark pleasures in Colombia than making things secure for a presidential visit. Meanwhile, the GSA, the government's real estate provider, now faces wholesale revamping of its personnel, some of whom spent almost a million dollars on a good-time conference in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the Justice Department appear to have colluded to keep out of public reach a report that should send a chill through all those seeking a fair trial. The once glorified FBI crime lab, it turns out, has kept its considerable mistakes out of the hands of defendants and their attorneys, denying them potentially exculpatory evidence, a policy that has cost who knows how many accused years of freedom.
The initial investigation of a few errant Secret Service agents by the agency itself has revealed that as many as 21 prostitutes and an equal number of agents and military personnel assigned to advance the president's South American summit in Cartagena participated in what is likely to become the worst scandal in the agency's history.
Disturbingly, the 11 Secret Service agents included two supervisors. All were put on leave, three were ousted and there is talk of more firings to come. Even more alarming was the fact they all had top security clearances and possessed travel and logistical information that could have fallen into the wrong hands.
While the president has expressed his support for Director Mark Sullivan for moving quickly to remove the agents and to begin an investigation, one has to wonder how much the top agency officials had looked the other way in a long rumored culture that openly laughed about "wheels up and rings off" in the presidential advance teams.
In addition, it is also fair to do some serious probing of the agency's recruitment and training methods. Obviously, there aren't any tests for common sense, but enough evidence of bad judgment manifests itself over time. That is especially true for those picked for supervisory roles in such an important phase of presidential security. The whole business smacks of serious flaws in the system, top to bottom. A single incident is one thing but a crowd like this is quite another.
As it turned out, the entire matter might have gone undetected had not one of the morons involved tried to haggle over paying his date. She made enough of a fuss that the hotel and the police became involved and tipped off U.S. embassy authorities.
The GSA scandal is reflective of similar poor supervision at the top. Regional managers, including the planner of the Las Vegas boondoggle, reportedly have been treated like "royalty," to paraphrase a congressional critic. Deborah Neely -- a non-GSA employee, but the wife of one of the agency's supervisors -- nevertheless reportedly took an active part in some of husband Mark's questionable activities. How many heads will be severed from their positions over revelation of the big agency's flamboyant disregard for taxpayers' money is anyone's guess, given the fact everyone from Congress to the Justice Department wants a piece of this action. Lawyers are lining up.
As for the FBI's incredible intransigence in the lab scandal and quite obvious lack of playing fair with defendants' lives, examples are multiplying of men convicted by faulty, corrupted evidence. Some of these defendants spent years in prison they probably wouldn't have otherwise. This misfiring of justice taints the system at all levels, local, state, and federal, where law enforcement authorities and the courts have for decades depended on forensic evidence from the FBI labs.
It would be difficult to blame the White House for any of this, but undoubtedly there will be a major effort to do so in this volatile presidential election atmosphere. The "if it happens or your watch" rule will be invoked, fairly or not. The GSA and FBI scandals have been developing over years. The Secret Service operates under procedures that are necessarily independent to protect against political interference.
Nevertheless the president controls who's in charge of each agency.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.