Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama And The Secret Service Prostitution Scandal

The Summit of the Americas was a debacle for President Obama. America essentially came away with nothing largely because of its foolhardy attempt to maintain the embargo on Cuba. In seeking to isolate Cuba, America is only isolating itself. But the biggest black eye for Obama came with the revelation—unearthed by CIA historian Ronald Kessler—that members of the Secret Service were apparently frolicking with prostitutes in Colombia. This isn't merely an embarrassing episode of gringos going wild, it should sound alarms about the Secret Service's ability to protect the president.

The eleven agents allegedly involved were recalled to the United States from Cartagena, but the Secret Service is trying to downplay the scandal, which came to light after one of the agents apparently tried to stiff a prostitute who demanded payment. Fortunately, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa is having none of it. According to the Washington Post, he believes that more agents may have been involved. The real danger may be that there is a culture of corruption at the Secret Service, which has acted as a kind of praetorian guard for decades. It has become a law unto itself.

As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, the Secret Service has dramatically increased its size over the past several decades—it now has some six thousand employees—and at times become what he called in 1992 a "disgrace and danger" to the republic. It's now become a badge of honor for aspiring presidential candidates to receive Secret Service protection during the primary campaign—it's an ego boost and signifies that you've arrived. The agents sometimes act as ruthless enforcers for the candidates by snuffing out legitimate protests at campaign rallies. Then there is the cost of all this security—$1.5 billion a year. There's no way that taxpayers should be footing the bill for the Secret Service protection that the likes of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich received. Let them pay for it themselves.

The best way to think about the Secret Service is to realize that its name is bogus. It isn't secret. Instead, it's like any other government agency intent on maximizing its influence, reach and numbers. It can always dream up new threats that it needs to address. Congress has pretty much signed off on anything the agency wants. Why not subject the Secret Service to the scrutiny that other govenment agencies are now receiving? Even the Defense Department is going to see a diminution in the rapidity of its budget increases. There is no reason the Secret Service should be exempt.

The behavior allegedly engaged in by the Secret Service suggests an agency that is running amok. Heads need to roll. This is the second fiasco (think the Salahis crashing the White House State Dinner) on Secret Service director Mark Sullivan's watch. Rep. Issa has it exactly right: incidents like this aren't an accident but probably representative of a broader problem at the Secret Service. The Wall Street Journal reports that "wheels up, rings off" is a running joke at the agency.

The Secret Service bears the classic hallmarks of a complacent and bloated government agency. It has become too large for its own good. Lawmakers should use this scandal as an opportunity to scrutinize the agency and overhaul what Senator Moynihan rightly called "a threat to the quality of the American democracy."