Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it better when Secret Service agents focused on protecting the President when working on advance teams — especially when traveling to potentially volatile areas, like Colombia can still be. Instead, a team of a dozen agents that worked to set up security for President Obama’s visit to the Summit of the Americas has been sent back home, as at least one member of the team apparently focused more on going, er, undercover:
The U.S. Secret Service is investigating allegations of misconduct by agents who had been sent to Cartagena, Colombia, to provide security for President Obama’s trip to a summit that began there Friday.
Edwin Donovan, an agency spokesman, said that an unspecified number of agents have been recalled and replaced with others, stressing that Obama’s security has not been compromised because of the change. Obama arrived in Cartagena on Friday afternoon for this weekend’s Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 33 of the hemisphere’s 35 leaders to discuss economic policy and trade.
Donovan declined to disclose details about the nature of the alleged misconduct. But Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the accusations relate to at least one agent having involvement with prostitutes in Cartagena.
Both the Post and the AP reported on this protectus interruptus late last night. The Post got the story from its former reporter Ronald Kessler, who has written a book about the Secret Service’s personal protection mission, specifically regarding the presidents. The story flew around Twitter last night; I got it from Marc Ambinder, who like me couldn’t recall a scandal like this in the Secret Service. The Post recalls two recent cases of potential misconduct in the last few months, however. One involved charges of drunken driving by an agent on an advance team in Iowa last August, and in November an agent got charged with second-degree murder for an off-duty shooting in Honolulu — again while working on an advance team for an Obama summit [see update II].
As it turns out, the Secret Service sent an advance team to Colombia for a good reason:
Fears of violence marred Saturday’s opening of a summit gathering US President Barack Obama and Latin American leaders when four bombs went off here and in the Colombian capital.
Two of the crude devices exploded in the resort city of Cartagena just hours after the US leader arrived for regional talks set to focus on the vicious drug wars stalking the region.
Two other small bombs exploded near the US Embassy in Bogota, in an area which is also home to important government buildings.
“Nobody was killed, nobody was injured, and there was no damage,” a police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Brothels are legal in Colombia in certain “tolerance zones,” but the Secret Service forbids agents to indulge while traveling. (Several of the members of this unit are married as well, which should make for some interesting conversations when they return home very early from their travels.) In case some readers believe that the Secret Service’s concern is mere prudery, having agents engage in this behavior is not just distracting, but potentially exposes them to blackmail and extortion attempts, and possibly a “honey trap” espionage operation, although probably less likely. And let’s not forget that the State Department’s official position on prostitution in Colombia is not that it’s staffed by self-actualized libertarians who voluntarily join for the great salary and benefits, emphasis mine:
Colombia is a major source country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking in Latin America, the Caribbean, Western Europe, Asia, and North America, including the United States, as well as a transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor. Within Colombia, some men and children are found in conditions of forced labor in mining and agriculture, and the sex trafficking of women and children from rural areas into urban areas remains a significant problem. …
Some Ecuadorian children, many of them indigenous, are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking in Colombia. Illegal armed groups forcibly recruit children to join their ranks; an international organization estimates that at least 10,000 children participate in illegal armed groups. Members of gangs and organized criminal networks force relatives, acquaintances, and displaced persons – typically women and children – into conditions of sex trafficking and forced labor, including in the illegal drug trade. Colombia is a destination for foreign child sex tourists from the United States and Europe, particularly to coastal cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla.
This is an embarrassment to the US on multiple levels. If the charges are true, DHS should be advertising for one or more open positions in the Secret Service.
Update: I had forgotten that the Secret Service was moved out of Treasury and into the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve corrected it above.
Update II: The shooting incident involved an agent from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, not the Secret Service. The Post included it because the agent was on the advance security team for Obama’s Asia summit, and I didn’t read it closely enough. Thanks to reader Marilu for the correction.