Commentary: There’s nothing new in latest Secret Service scandal
Bob Ray Sanders
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Bob Ray Sanders
Secret Service agents and military personnel, part of a security advance team in a foreign country for the U.S. president’s visit, decide to party hardy.
The result? A major “scandal” that has led to an extensive internal review, calls for a congressional investigation, the questioning of the “culture” within the Secret Service and a demand by some for heads to roll, especially the agency’s director, Mark Sullivan.
Before commenting further on this latest national “embarrassment,” let’s go back to another time, another president and another group of agents charged with protecting the leader of the free world.
It was the night of Nov. 21, 1963.
Based on the account from William Manchester’s The Death of the President, Air Force One and two other planes landed at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth shortly after 11 p.m. There was a light rain and no one in the presidential party expected to see many people turn out at that time of night.
But throngs of folks (10,000 according to the Star -Telegram) lined the West Freeway from the base to downtown. The Hotel Texas lobby was full of people, causing the Secret Service some alarm as the president and Jacqueline Kennedy made their way to their three-room suite on the eighth floor.
It had been a very long day and Jacqueline Kennedy was “exhausted.” Her husband, while tired, was exhilarated by what was turning out to be a great trip to Texas. They went to bed.
The on-duty Secret Service agents went about their duties, with the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift guarding outside Suite 850. There was an agent posted at the hotel entrance; another inspected the parking lot, secured the president’s car and checked the entrances and exits the president would use the next day.
There also were guards posted at the plane, routine even at a Strategic Air Command base.
“But nine agents of the White House detail, unknown to [agent-in-charge Roy] Kellerman, were out on the town,” Manchester writes. “They started with beer and mixed drinks at the Fort Worth Press Club with Mac Kilduff; then seven of them continued at a colorful establishment called ‘The Cellar,’ ordering ‘Salty Dicks,’ a nonalcoholic specialty of the house. One stayed until 5 a.m.”
Manchester continues, “Fellow drinkers during those early-morning hours included four agents who were to ride in the President’s follow-up car in Dallas, and whose alertness was vital to his safety. At various times they were joined by three agents of the twelve-to-eight shift — who were officially on duty, assigned to guard the President’s bedroom door — and chose to break the boredom of sentry duty in this fashion.”
When I became a member of the Press Club of Fort Worth (its official name so as not to be confused with a club of the Fort Worth Press newspaper), I often heard old-timers describe how they had broken the law that night, keeping the club open past legal hours for the partying Secret Service agents.
Conspiracy theorists for years have pointed to the agents’ actions as contributing to what happened the next day in Dallas. There has never been any proof that the behavior of mostly off-duty agents had anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination.
The truth is many federal agents, just as many local law enforcement officers, drink when they are off duty. It is their way of winding down after long, stressful and sometimes boring work days.
What happened in Cartagena, Colombia, is inexcusable. As many as 11 Secret Service agents and up to 10 military personnel are under investigation because they reportedly brought 20 prostitutes to their hotel rooms. Some agents allegedly had detailed information about the president’s itinerary and travel routes.
Although Congress loves to investigate things, I don’t know that we need an official congressional hearing over this, and it is far too premature to call for the dismissal of the director.
Salacious scandals feed the appetite of a 24-hour news cycle, but we should allow this one to take its course through the normal review process without the usual rush to judgment.