Some Secret Service agents in uniform who are not drunk. Photo via Flickr user Edward Kimmel
Among the many indignities visited upon America’s first black president, we can now add one more: His Secret Service agents insist on raging.
The Washington Post reported late on Tuesday that three agents deployed to the Netherlands ahead of Barack Obama’s visit this week were sent home for drinking after one of them was discovered passed out on the floor of a hotel hallway. That frattish behavior apparently took place early Sunday morning, or about 24 hours before the president was scheduled to arrive. What's worse, these Police Academy–fodder drunks were members of the elite Counter Assault Team (CAT), which is responsible for beating back armed attackers if and when Obama's personal security detail is compelled to whisk him away to safety.
This isn't even the first time the Secret Service has been caught not-so-secretly getting fucked up. Back in April 2012, 11 agents deployed to Cartagena, Colombia, ahead of an Obama visit were sent home for hiring prostitutes—and one of the agents wouldn't even pay his. Oh, and in 2011, Daniel Valencia, an agent assigned to go to Iowa ahead of an official visit, was arrested for drunk driving. Last December, Ignacio Zamora Jr., a supervisor in charge of the president's detail—the most prized assignment in the professional security world—was discovered trying to force his way into a woman's hotel room, supposedly in hopes of retrieving a stray bullet he had left behind during some kind of liason that, I guess, involved him getting his gun (among other things) out.
So what gives? Why are so many Secret Service agents embarrassing themselves lately?
"The Secret Service's main cultural problem has never been sexism or hypermasculinity. It's alcoholism," Marc Ambinder, a journalist who has written extensively about the inner workings of the agency, told me. This is nothing new: Tales of agents getting too drunk to perform their jobs date to at least the Kennedy years—there's even a conspiracy theory that an inexperienced trainee who was on AR-15 duty because other agents were too hungover to work accidentally killed JFK.
These public humiliations have been more common recently, however. Several experts I spoke to attributed this series of mini-scandals during the Obama administration to a leadership vacuum left by the promotion of rank-and-file agents to senior positions instead of filling those posts with people from the military or other law enforcement agencies, as was common in the past. So while after-hours excesses aren't exactly novel, they've been exacerbated by managers who are nearly as intent on protecting the Secret Service brand (and pleasing the White House staff) as guarding the president.
Case in point is the agency's decision to send the three boozing agents home, a clear overreaction according to Dan Emmett, a 21-year veteran of the agency and author of the upcoming memoir Within Arm's Length. "Sending them home 24 hours before presidential arrival is counterproductive to the mission," he told me. "When you take three CAT agents out of a team, you just decimated that team by 50 percent, thus rendering them ineffective."
Apparently the agency decided to get out in front of this latest PR disaster right away—it didn't want to make the mistake it made after the Colombia incident, when it declined to comment or act even as Ronald Kessler, a veteran journalist and author of In the President's Secret Service, was bringing it to light. Kessler told me that the agency's culture has been corrupted—which, he said, has led to a number of embarrassing snafus. He cited the Salahis, a couple who snuck into Obama's first official state dinner in 2009, as well as special requests during the George W. Bush years for agents to chauffeur Dick Cheney's daughters' friends to dinner parties (and when Cheney's wife Lynne threw a fit after being told this was impossible, she got her detail leader removed by senior agency officals).
Still, the majority of the more than 100 agents Kessler has interviewed over the years don't imbibe in excess with any kind of frequency. And even though it's not great for the Secret Service's image that an overserved agent mistook a hotel hallway for a bed, no laws were broken and no one got hurt. Back in Dan Emmett's day—which included both Bush presidencies and the Clinton years—untoward boozing like that would have been punished with 30 days "on the beach," which is to say non-paid leave.
In this era of 24-hour media coverage, however, every time an agent gets too drunk to stand it's a news story and a black eye for the Secret Service. Its long-simmering alcohol problem can't be hidden from the public anymore, and bringing the hammer down on the agents hapless or unlucky enough to get caught isn't going to solve anything. Clearly, the guys in charge of protecting the president need to be protected from themselves.
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.