Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:10 PM
WASHINGTON -- There used to be an old Army saying that you could do anything no matter how ethically or morally questionable as long as you didn't get caught. I don't know whether that still applies, but it certainly seems to be the rule that President Barack Obama's advance team, including military personnel and Secret Service agents, was operating under during a notorious visit to Columbia recently.
This scandal won't go away. To emphasize that point, four agents from the detail are challenging their dismissals for having consorted with prostitutes in Cartagena. They argue that after-hours carousing has been ignored or tolerated by their superiors under a policy that, taken to its lowest common denominator, was exemplified by the "wheels up, rings off" philosophy openly joked about by old fighter jocks.
When I was in the Army, I recall an aide-de-camp to a commanding general who every Friday would call to ask if my boss was out. If he was, the aide would shut the door and use that office phone for nonmilitary business. Even though he was a major and I was a draft grunt corporal, I took it on myself to casually remark one Friday that I hoped he and the general would have a careful weekend. He gave me a knowing nod. Several months later, there was a new aide and the major had disappeared, having obviously taken the rap for an after-duty assignment that went publicly sour.
It was, I knew, what one could face in the high-risk business of playing with fire. And that is exactly what happened to the "lunk heads" (Obama's words) in Colombia, some of whom want their futures restored. My friend the major knew full well the game he was playing and its dangers, and when he was shipped out from a good assignment he took his medicine quietly. Whether he felt he had no choice under the circumstances, I never found out. It makes no difference.
One of the four Secret Service agents -- there were about a dozen involved -- who is single contends he didn't know that the two women he took to his quarters were hookers. Two women! What gave him the first clue they might be? But it really doesn't matter whether they were or weren't, now does it? What matters is that the agents' behavior was not what one expects from those charged with the protection of a United States chief executive. That, in two words, is "beyond reproach." If that wasn't understood, then those involved lacked the judgment all along to have had such a sensitive assignment.
Congress loves this kind of TV-friendly, high-publicity scandal. So Secret Service Chief Mark Sullivan will have his hands full protecting the agency from the kind of rough reform demands that other federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been put through.
The FBI, DEA, ATF and CIA all have had their moments in the crucible of a high profile congressional investigation. While the Secret Service acted quickly to control the damage, removing the detail before the president's arrival and then firing those involved, even a suspicion that the agency's administration has been looking the other way is enough to get the Capitol Hill lions roaring.
That suspicion has grown in the aftermath. The four agents' claims now must be dealt with and there is the possibility that some higher-level resignations might be in the offing. What seemed like a swift conclusion to an embarrassing situation may haunt for some time the agency that until now has been immune from accusations of misbehavior. In the end, Sullivan himself could face the prospect of stepping down.
The four agents have put their own behavior squarely back in the spotlight with their contentions they have been scapegoats for an unspoken policy. In the process they also have produced some serious questions about how the agency has been operating for who knows how long.
What transpires next is anyone's guess, but quite obviously Sullivan will have to institute new zero tolerance rules for anyone who plays what we used to call "the old Army game." No more boys-will-be-boys excuses.
This is said with apologies to all those in uniform now or who once were.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.
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