A little more than a decade ago, as a heavy snow fell on the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a young Secret Service agent had the misfortune to draw what may have been the most unusual post-standing assignment in the 137-year history of his agency. He was to spend the night alone on a remote, mountainous ridgeline on the outskirts of Park City, in a hastily constructed shelter the size of a phone booth. His survival kit included his sidearm, a flashlight, a two-way radio, and a snow shovel to dig himself out come morning. Electronic sensors would occasionally activate, requiring the agent to plunge himself into the cold darkness, unsure if he was going to confront a terrorist or a mountain lion.
A decade later, the entire United States Secret Service finds itself in similarly unchartered terrain, thanks to the brazen stupidity of a small handful of agency personnel during a recent presidential visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
Full disclosure -- I was once an employee of this agency, far and away the most rewarding time of my professional career. More disclosure -- I couldn't care less at this point about the Cartagena 12. They have been thoroughly and rightfully castigated in the public realm, their careers effectively derailed, their family lives upturned.
The continued media fixation is of little surprise. "These men endangered the president!" declare the shrill talking heads wallpapering the 24/7 cable news. Other so-called experts have suggested that these escapades could have been used as blackmail material in an assassination attempt, or allowed the president's schedule to fall into the wrong hands. True, the Colombians know how to take out a motorcade. But that was Harrison Ford, a few SUVs and a fictional yarn spun by Tom Clancy. The real presidential motorcade is a tad tougher to tangle with in real life. Moreover, are we to believe that an agent who is clearly willing to trade his life for the president's is also willing to sell out his country lest his wife learn of his marital infidelity?
The Secret Service has already thrown the book at the supervisors and their subordinates involved in Cartagena; more dismissals are likely to follow. I'd like to think the aggressive response might diffuse some of the hysterics surrounding this "scandal." But alas, this is Washington, a city that embraces sensational headlines like Donald Trump embraces ... Donald Trump. What is tragically unfair is how this extraordinary episode has tarnished an agency with such an enduring legacy. And so stand some 5,988 chagrinned colleagues the Cartagena 12 left behind to answer to Congress, the media, the public and their own friends and families. That's 5,988 men and women who are infuriated, deeply embarrassed, and reluctant now to even open a newspaper or turn on the television. The wounded pride is felt among the broader Secret Service family as well -- the scores of former and retired personnel unaccustomed to seeing their collective integrity challenged in public.
It saddens me to think that the public may associate the entire agency with the dozen oafs who exercised shockingly poor judgment. Instead, I hope in the coming weeks the agency is judged by Congress and the public not only by its proud history and record of accomplishment, but by how officials reacted in the hours and days after the events unfolded in Cartagena. So far, we know each agent and officer involved was swiftly recalled from Colombia, replaced and disciplined. An internal investigation was launched immediately with the agency pledging to leave no stone unturned. Judging from the information spill coming from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and others on the Hill, the Secret Service has clearly been forthcoming and sharing its findings with key congressional oversight committees. We'll learn more later, but early indications are that the Secret Service has handled this matter deftly and entirely appropriately, sweeping nothing under the rug.
In public, Secret Service agents are perceived as wooden and robotic. In truth, they are as human as the rest of us, trying to raise families, make ends meet, and hoping the communities they live and work in remain safe from those who wish us great harm. What sets these men and women apart from most is their passionate dedication to their craft, their camaraderie, and their tireless devotion to duty.
They live on a razor's edge that is impossible for most to fathom -- the possibility that any minute, one operational mistake, or even an event out of their control, could result in every one of those agents and officers being held responsible for one of the worst catastrophes in our national history. Talk about a pressure cooker environment. And yet the Secret Service's operational excellence is the benchmark their law enforcement and military colleagues strive to emulate every day. They were the standard before Cartagena, and remain so today.
After this story broke, it was alarming to see a handful of individuals emerge from the woodwork with breathtaking speed to allege "culture problems" at the Secret Service. You'll hear nary an official response to such charges, as this is an agency that is necessarily thick-skinned, content with ignoring the hardballs being lobbed from the likes of book-hawking authors who have never spent a single day working in security or law enforcement.
The politicians though, are a different sort, and a few seem to have much to say. Amid the handful of members of Congress that have taken a stern but measured tone, we are also hearing a fair share of what Newt Gingrich might call "pious baloney." The pious being that madcap Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) suggesting that Congress should investigate how agents spend their free time, and the baloney being the buffoonish Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) implicating White House staff in this incident, despite lacking a scintilla of evidence suggesting so.
And what of Director Mark Sullivan? Sullivan was appointed by President Bush and retained by President Obama; that in itself is a rarity within an executive branch that has become deeply politicalized in the last decade. The director of the Secret Service is traditionally chosen from the agency ranks and one of the few remaining positions in government untainted by the partisan toxicity and ideological crusades that have consumed Washington.
The absurd notion that Sullivan has cultivated a permissive culture that condones such blatant misconduct and irresponsibility is ignorant malarkey put forward by a small few who most likely have some sort of axe to grind or book to shill. I worked under Director Sullivan. He is personable, approachable, and as his 34 years in law enforcement has demonstrated, an immensely dedicated and conscientious agency leader and public servant. I am confident that there is no one more livid, more sickened, and more committed to ensuring that what happened in Colombia never occurs again than Mark Sullivan.
Let's have some perspective, people. This is not the worst scandal in the history of the Secret Service; it is the only scandal, which means something, as we're talking about an agency that was founded in 1865, decades older than even the FBI. Cartagena was an isolated, sophomoric stunt that only Bluto and the rest of Delta House would have approved of.
April 12, 2012 was surely a dark day for the Secret Service, but the worst day? Not even close. That distinction belongs to November 22, 1963, with March 30, 1981 a close second. As always, the agency will endeavor to learn and evolve, and move forward. Ridicule the 12; they're fair game. But the Secret Service's motto is "Worthy of Trust and Confidence," and yes, America, it still is.