On duty, 24/7
At a restaurant, you and your spouse notice the man at the next table has been drinking excessively and acting obnoxiously. You recognize him as the plumber scheduled to fix your kitchen sink tomorrow afternoon. In all likelihood, you dismiss the incident and welcome him the next day; after all, good plumbers are hard to find. But what if the man was the surgeon scheduled to operate on your child? You’d be more inclined to look for another surgeon.
The point of that hypothetical is that when it comes to personal behavior and carriage, certain occupations are never “off the clock.” People in some jobs must comport themselves in line with what they are paid to do — airline pilots, elementary school teachers, bank presidents, nurses. Implicit in their job descriptions is a modicum of “integrity” and “character.”
Which brings us to the Secret Service. In recent testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan denied that a culture of debauchery existed within the Secret Service. During President Barack Obama‘s diplomatic trip to Columbia last month, 12 agents allegedly visited strip clubs, drank to excess and brought women back to their hotel rooms. The agents did not appear to do much to conceal their behavior.
Sullivan testified, “Between the alcohol — and I don’t know, the environment, these individuals did some really dumb things. …The notion that this type of behavior is condoned or authorized is just absurd. … I just believe extremely — very strongly that this just is not part of our culture.”
Put simply, despite his contrition and his subsequent claim that no security breaches occurred during the incident, Sullivan should be fired. The misdeeds by themselves are sufficient. There is no excuse for off-duty Secret Service agents acting like frat boys.
Questions about indiscretions and potentially reckless behavior by the Secret Service are nothing new. As far back as Nov. 22, 1963, Secret Service agents in Texas, including several in the presidential motorcade, were known to have been out drinking the night before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, although there is no suggestion that it played a part in the tragedy (imagine, though, the guilt some of those agents must have felt).
During the Homeland Security Committee hearings last week, Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut and chairman of the committee, reported several other instances of untoward behavior by the Secret Service, including “partying with alcohol with underage females in their hotel rooms while on assignment at the 2002 Olympics.” Lieberman was quick to point out, “We do not yet find evidence at all sufficient to justify a conclusion of a pattern of misconduct or a culture of misconduct.”
Such a qualified conclusion hardly exonerates the Secret Service director.
The Secret Service is attempting to dismiss nine of the agents. According to The Washington Post, at least four are contesting the efforts to dismiss them, claiming they didn’t break any rules. Some argue that as single men, they can behave as they please on personal time. Others insist their off-duty behavior falls under the category of “what happens on the road stays on the road.” Legalities aside, if that is true, there is no excuse Sullivan can make for this dysfunctional environment. It may have existed before his tenure, but he has obviously not done enough to change it.
Essentially, the agents’ elite status has them operating in a protective bubble, giving them an unwarranted sense of entitlement and self-governance. When any profession operates in an atmosphere with no accountability, inappropriate behavior is a natural consequence.
For certain privileged professions, comporting oneself with decorum should not be viewed as a sacrifice. It isn’t. It is a trade-off. The Secret Service (and many other professionals) get special treatment in areas such as hotels, airline seating, restaurants, etc. This is reasonable, but it should be understood they receive those things because of their occupation, not who they are as individuals. So, if they enjoy the perks, they must be willing to adopt the responsibilities that come with their jobs. Entitlements carry a price. That price is behaving in a dignified manner in public. If this means updated “morals clauses” in Secret Service contracts, with new rules concerning off-hours alcohol consumption and fraternization, then the agency must act accordingly.
Obama defended the Secret Service, saying it shouldn’t be discredited by a few “knuckleheads.” He is understandably bound to defend the agency sworn to protect him. However, like Sullivan, the president may not appreciate the full import of this situation. It is not simply a matter of appearances, but of substance also.
One person who understood the gravity better was 24-year-old Dania Londono Suarez, the Colombian prostitute involved in the incident. She went on television and said the agents “left their duty behind.” She explained that she had access to one agent’s documents, suitcase and wallet. “I don’t know how Obama had them (the agents involved) in his security force.”
The Secret Service, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion at all times.
That’s why Secret Service Director Sullivan should be relieved of command.