Many say the current presidential race is the most uncivilized in modern American history. Civility in public discourse, why it seems to have hit a new low and long-term implications for the democratic process.
The Secret Service has announced the departure of three employees connected to a prostitution scandal involving members of President Obama’s security detail. Eight others remain under investigation. The incident has focused attention on the training and oversight of Secret Service agents. It’s also damaged the agency’s reputation as an elite federal law enforcement team. After meeting with Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, Senator Susan Collins asked whether there was evidence of other misconduct — and if the incident indicates a larger problem in the agency. Diane and her guests discuss the culture of the Secret Service.
- Paul Rosenzweig visiting fellow, The Heritage Foundation and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security (2005-9).
- Jon Adler national president, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
- Ronald Kessler author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect."
- Michael Isikoff national investigative correspondent for NBC.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Secret Service prostitution scandal is shining a light on an organization that prefers to stay behind the scenes. It's also raising questions about the culture of the nearly 150-year-old agency.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the Secret Service: author and journalist Ronald Kessler, Michael Isikoff of NBC, and former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security Paul Rosenzweig. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for joining us.
MR. RONALD KESSLERGood morning.
MR. PAUL ROSENZWEIGGood morning.
MR. MICHAEL ISIKOFFGood morning.
REHMMichael Isikoff, bring us up to date on the scandal that seems to be gripping the Secret Service.
ISIKOFFWell, we had a very strong response from the Secret Service last night. They announced their first personnel action as a result of the investigation. One of the Secret Service supervisors is effectively being fired, being proposed for removal, in the way the agency put it. Another is being allowed to retire, and then another agent is resigning.
ISIKOFFSo while the investigation continues, another eight Secret Service agents and officers who've been implicated in this remain on administrative leave. Their security's clearance is stripped. This is the first strong reaction. I think it's fair to say the Secret Service, at this point, is very much in damage control mode trying to contain the scandal, showing that they are moving aggressively to investigate it.
REHMRon Kessler, you've written a book titled "In the President's Secret Service," and I'm looking at an article in The New Republic by Timothy Noah. The last line of which is, "Naughty behavior by 11 guys in dark glasses who talk with their wristwatches is not something for America to lose sleep over." How do you see it?
KESSLERWell, I broke this story, so therefore I think it's a very important story, he said modestly. The -- this is a symptom of overall laxness by Secret Service management. This is the worst scandal in the history of the agency. They -- these agents could've been blackmailed into cooperating with terrorists or Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. It's not representative of the way agents normally behave at all.
KESSLERIn fact, they're so overworked and sleep deprived, they barely have time for a life to begin with. But what is prevalent is a management culture which condones corner-cutting, condones laxness. For example, they let people into events without magnetometer screening at times. That's just like letting people into airplanes without magnetometer screening. That alone should result in wholesale firings. They also don't keep up to date with latest firearms.
KESSLERThey don't insist on regular physical fitness or firearms testing. You saw another result of this with the Salahis crashing the White House a few years ago. So all of this is -- all of this are indications of a management culture which condones this sort of behavior.
REHMMichael, what are the charges that have been brought against these agents?
ISIKOFFWell, actually, they haven't specified particular charges here. And one of the curious things here is that in Cartagena, Colombia, where all this took place, prostitution is legal, so they weren't necessarily breaking the law. I think it is presumed that they are engaged in personal misconduct that's in violation of Secret Service standards.
REHMWhat do we know about what happened?
ISIKOFFWell, we still have conflicting and murky accounts. There's a lengthy account from one of the alleged prostitutes or escort women in The New York Times today that recounts a dispute over payment. That does seem to be consistent with all the briefings, that there was 11 Secret Service agents and about -- and officers, and about 10 members of the U.S. military who, shortly after they arrived in Colombia, as part of the advance for the president's trip, procured women for the evening.
ISIKOFFIt's not clear that they all were together. I'm being told that they went out in groups and not necessarily all to the same strip club that got the attention initially. But somehow all of them managed to have women back in their rooms at the El Caribe Hotel after this evening.
REHMThey had been sent there as an advance team?
ISIKOFFPart of planning for the president's -- for the presidential summit, and they were -- they had been briefed that very day, I believe, on the president's itinerary, what the -- where everybody was supposed to be, the basics for the presidential advance. We do know that there were two supervisors involved, three members of the counter-assault team. These are the sort of commandos who are heavily armed, who are part of the presidential motorcade who are there to propel any attack on a presidential motorcade.
ISIKOFFWe know that there were three members of the counter-sniper team, the guys you see on the rooftops of buildings with rifles scouting for potential threats. And they bring back women to the -- their rooms of the Hotel Caribe. We do know that all -- under the hotel policy, any overnight guest had to be registered. You had to pay a $25 fee, and they had to -- and the guest had to leave their identification at the front desk.
ISIKOFFThen some point in the evening, there's a dispute over payment between either one or two of the agents and one of the women. And the woman complains to the police who are stationed at the hotel. There's banging on the door. The agent involved, at first doesn't open the door, and all this gets reported to the U.S. Embassy. Embassy personnel go to the hotel. They see the guest list. And they see that all these 11 agents had brought foreign national guests back to their rooms. This gets reported up the chain of the Secret Service, and they're immediately yanked out of there.
REHMPaul Rosenzweig, I find myself thinking about the wives and families of these Secret Service agents, military officials, who were in those rooms, but the question for the country and for the Congress is: Was the president's security breached by this incident?
ROSENZWEIGWell, like you, I find myself thinking about their families as well. And, clearly, for both the agents, the military officials involved, their wives and their children, it's a grave personal tragedy and a life-changing event. And we shouldn't lose sight of that. But in terms of the effect on the president's security, certainly in this instance, no. Clearly...
REHMHow do you know that?
ROSENZWEIGWell, clearly because we discovered what had happened well before the president arrived. The people who might have been compromised were pulled out. And the Secret Service and the people on the ground had an opportunity to modify the president's schedule to the extent that they thought it was necessary before he arrived. There's also -- at least as far as I can tell -- no evidence that we've seen suggested that there were any of the (word?) effects.
ROSENZWEIGAs Ron said, you know, sleeping with a prostitute is not in itself a security breach. The breach is if there's a potential for blackmail covert operations, you know, counter-surveillance, things like that that would happen to the agents themselves by virtue of their indiscretion. And given how this -- how we believe this has developed -- and we're still learning the facts, as Michael has said going forward -- given how it's developed, the breach of protocol and the breach of regulations was discovered within literally hours of it happening, making it highly unlikely that there was any actual breach.
ROSENZWEIGThat doesn't -- that's not to say that we should minimize what has happened or in any way condone it or excuse it. It clearly violated internal Secret Service regulations. It clearly is something for which both the agents themselves and the management will have to account. But in terms of -- I mean, Ron said earlier that this was the worst scandal in the Secret Service's history.
ROSENZWEIGAnd it may be, unless you include the really worse scandals which are, you know, the death of President Kennedy, right, you know, failures of the Secret Service to actually achieve their protective mission. And that hasn't -- that didn't happen here and hasn't happened yet, thank God.
REHMPaul Rosenzweig, he's visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. Michael Isikoff is national investigative correspondent for NBC. Ronald Kessler is author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect."
REHMI look forward to hearing your questions, comments throughout the hour. Ron Kessler, there is another issue here. It's about the morality of these agents. Somehow, we, in the public, may have mistakenly put them on some kind of pedestal.
KESSLERAs I said before, this is not representative of agents -- quite the opposite. Agents will take a bullet for the president. What more can you ask of anybody? They are patriots, and they really are, by and large, very, very impressive people. I know FBI agents admire Secret Service agents more than any other law enforcement, so that's not the problem. And, clearly, these people are idiots, and they did compromise themselves. But it's very unusual.
REHMRon Kessler. And we'll take a short break. When we come back, further talk, your calls.
REHMAnd joining us now to talk about this latest scandal involving the Secret Service is Jon Adler. He's national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Thanks for being with us.
MR. JON ADLERMy pleasure.
REHMI want to read you an email from Carol, who's in Atlanta, Ga. She says, "The thing that concerns me is if this many Secret Service agents and military personnel were involved in this incident, it's difficult to believe such behavior hasn't been going on for a long time. It's like people arrested for a drunk driving incident, they've usually been driving that way for a long time before being caught." What do you think, Jon Adler?
ADLERI think that's an unfair generalization. It's a -- this is not something you'd -- I mean, first of all, we're talking about an international allegations relating to an international incident. We're not talking about, you know, getting in your automobile and driving under the influence, which is obviously an unfortunate act to be involved in. We're dealing with a very specific set of circumstances and variables here that took place in Colombia.
ADLERAnd, you know, I don't know and no one on this phone call knows exactly why this -- well, why will -- why the allegations came up and, if proven, why the actual conduct did occur in that particular place. I mean, we all have a general perception of -- or at least, maybe men do -- and this is not particular to law enforcement -- as to what Colombia may provide similar to what Bangkok may provide, generally speaking.
ADLERBut, you know, the mission of the Secret Service is so driven -- and, in particular, anyone having any involvement with protecting the president, whether you're an advanced team or with him, is very time sensitive, and you normally don't even have enough time to really comb your hair twice, let alone get involved in what the allegations are dealing with here. But...
REHMI know that your organization represents Secret Service agents. What are your thoughts about what happened in Colombia?
ADLERWell, I don't know what happened. I know the allegations. The allegations themselves are obviously very disconcerting. However, you know, I am an undying proponent of due process and the rule of law. And as, I guess, sensationalizing as the headlines have been, as strong as the allegations are, ultimately, you know, we don't necessarily prosecute people by things that come out of an allegation factory because allegation factories manufacture conspiracy theories, and that doesn't necessarily hold up in court.
ADLERNow, although I'm very concerned with the allegations, the content and the alleged misconduct, I think that any one of the accused, by virtue of what they do on duty in their official capacity, which is risk their life to defend the president, vice president, their families and others, deserves the courtesy of being judged by the due process and the investigation being conducted by OPR.
REHMAt the same time, there are those who believe that there is something of a cultural epidemic at the Secret Service.
ADLERThe cultural epidemic at Secret Service is one of honor. This is an aberration. The allegations represent an aberration. I mean, since 1865, their culture has been of a very distinguished, sustained, sort of exemplary form of honor. And they've delivered, time and time again, while accepting tremendous risk, taking on a great amount of sacrifice to preserve both life and our currency for many, many years.
ADLERAnd I think, as Mr. Kessler alluded to, the Secret Service is hold -- is held in high regard not just by the FBI. I represent members from 65 federal agencies, and they all hold the Secret Service and its agents in high regard.
REHMMichael Isikoff would like ask a question.
ISIKOFFYeah, Jon, I understand your association is representing some or all of the agents who have been implicated in this. And there were reports last night that a least one of them, the supervisor, who has been proposed for removal, is planning to sue the Secret Service over this. Can you tell us if that's -- to your knowledge, if that's true, and if so, what the basis for the lawsuit would be?
ADLERWell, the first part of your question, yes, we are -- our attorneys are representing one or more of those who have been accused. In regard to this particular individual, it's at the point where now he is being proposed for removal. I don't know anything about what's being reported about suing the agency, but I do know this: Our attorneys will continue to represent him in any all aspects of the law, the due process and any ultimate appeal that may come out. And we will ensure that all of his rights are protected and he has the fair opportunity to pursue his legal recourse.
ISIKOFFSo he is challenging the proposal for removal?
ADLERUltimately, by way of process, I don't know if we're actually there yet. But it's one of these things where I'm not privileged to the conversation between my attorney and my member, in this case, the accused. I do know that my attorneys will be there to represent them. I don't necessarily know what their legal strategy is, per se. My job is to make sure they have the attorney and that the attorney will do everything they can to represent them.
REHMYou know, the other question is in regard to the security threat that could have been the case in Colombia. You argue that that security threat is being misportrayed in the media. How so?
ADLERThat's correct. There was sort of a lot of speculation regarding very sensitive information that could've been obtained, and we were sort of pursuing on the allegation that there were women in one or more of the rooms. And a point to sort of make out -- make here is that, first of all, they have what you call a secure room, a separate room where all of the sensitive information, materials gets locked up. And that is manned 24/7, I think in this particular incident, by at least two Marines, not to mention Secret Service special agents.
ADLERSo they didn't have those materials, those scheduled items that was suggested, were sort of lying there haphazardly on their bed. Their firearms are secured as well. The Blackberries, and maybe everyone on their phone could -- sort of experiences this, they time out in five seconds and you need an 85-digit code to even get into it, which is one of the fun parts of life with all the technology.
ADLERBut the point to make here is that the vulnerability exists, perhaps even more, with room service by way of a maid, by hotel staff. And they always take the proper precautions, understanding that there are vulnerabilities not just by anyone you might bring to your room but, again, by any of the hotel staff. Obviously, when we're outside of the United States, we can't control the environment as well as we'd like to, so we do take those extra steps, those proper precautions.
REHMAll right. Jon Adler, couple of questions, first, are the people or the person that you are representing denying that these women, who were either escorts or prostitutes, were in the rooms with Secret Service agents?
ADLERThat sort of falls back to what I said before, which is I'm not privy to the conversations between my attorneys and the accused. And what they are actually representing to the attorneys representing the Secret Service, I wouldn't have access to that information. I have to sit back and wait to find out what exactly is being discussed.
REHMAll right. And if, in fact, there were women in those rooms, what about the morality of the issue? What is your thinking about the so-called wings up, rings off?
ADLERI think that's an unfortunate attribution to be applied to the Secret Service or any other federal law enforcement agency. Obviously, the morale is being impacted by the allegations, which is why again I just can't reinforce enough to sort of respect what OPR is doing before we jump to quick conclusions. But the allegations alone, the headlines, the hypes, they conspiracy theory, you know, the rumor mill machinations have been very damaging to all of us in federal law enforcement. But it doesn't undefine the honor and the proud tradition of the Secret Service, and we'll get through this.
REHMAnd Paul Rosenzweig wants to ask a question.
ROSENZWEIGMr. Adler, I'm curious, given your perspective view, you have an ability to give us a kind of historical perspective. Can you tell us, in the last five, 10 years whether or not we've seen similar kinds of actions against agents, either in the Secret Service or in other federal law enforcement agencies for similar conduct that haven't made it into the headlines in the way that this one has? Is this common, or is this the first time it's ever happened?
ADLERGood question. No, it's an aberration. I represent 26,000 members that come from 65 different federal agencies. We have had other incidents where, by allegation, what was being alleged was very serious and troubling. There have been instances in the past 10 years where bad acts did occur, in fact, and were properly policed, you know, by the director and/or counsel for that respective agency, which is why we have an inspector general community to jump on situations where there are serious allegations and properly investigate it.
ADLERBut it is not norm. It is not representative. The Secret Service has a proud tradition of sustained honor, and this is a very unfortunate aberration by way of the allegations. But it will not, by no means, taint the honor and tradition of the Secret Service.
REHMRon Kessler, do you agree with that?
KESSLERI agree with that, but I don't think that it should be referred to as allegations. That's the reference that President Obama made. Also, last Sunday, allegation in the press. The Secret Service itself, when I broke the story, said on the record that misconduct was involved. At that point, they'd already investigated enough to determine that these people should be removed. So let's -- you know, let's at least agree on what actually has happened here.
KESSLERAnd the larger picture, again, is -- for example, when Dick Cheney's daughter Mary was under protection, she would try to get her agents to take her friends to restaurants. They refused, as they should have. They're not taxi drivers. But she threw a fit, and, because of that, she got her detail leader removed by management. So what kind of message does that send to the Uniformed Division officers at the White House gate when the Salahis came in prancing to crash the party?
KESSLERThe message is if you turn away this glamorous couple -- and it turns out they were supposed to be on the guest list -- you could be in trouble with management. Your own management will not back it. So this is another example of the corner-cutting, the laxness. And beyond that, the Secret Service has been accepting more and more duties. They guard not only the secret -- the presidents, vice presidents, but G-8 summit, national nominating conventions, on and on.
KESSLERAnd at the same time, they have not been asking for enough additional agents and budget, and instead they get agents to work tremendous overtime hours. They barely get any sleep. Most of the time, they have no home life. So there's low morale, high turnover. All of this contributes to the atmosphere that this occurred in and these other breaches occurred in.
REHMDo you see changes being made, Jon Adler, in the whole Secret Service apparatus?
ADLERI'm sorry. I didn't hear the last part of what you said.
REHMDo you see changes being made in the whole Secret Service apparatus?
ADLERYes. I've always had open lines of communication with Director Sullivan. He's -- prior to this incident and the allegations ever surfacing, he has solicited my input and input from other law enforcement professionals, third parties, to review certain aspects of his agency's operations. So the fact that he's open-minded and very proactive to address any vulnerabilities, any concerns, any things where there can be improvement, I fully expect that he will continue to operate that way.
REHMBut how likely...
ADLERI think there will be a proper review of everything that occurred. And I think we should trust that process, and we'll build upon it.
REHMHow likely is it that he might lose his job?
ADLERWell, if we judge him by conspiracy theory, he will. If we judge him by reason and due process, Mark Sullivan will continue properly so as the director of Secret Service.
ADLERAnd I'm hoping that the reason will defeat the rumor.
ISIKOFFI think it's fair to say this still has several beats to play out. At least so far, the congressional committee leaders who oversee the Secret Service have been, by and large, supportive of Director Sullivan. They have not called for his resignation. I believe there may have been one last night who did, and we may see more. But, so far, both Republicans and Democrats -- we have not heard from key congressional leaders' calls for Sullivan's resignation.
ISIKOFFI think it's inevitable that when you have a scandal like this, there are going to be broader looks into the kinds of issues that Ron is raising. But I think, you know, people are going to be -- what got this traction is the nature of these allegations, and I think what people want to know is, has this kind of thing happened before? And I think that's going to be a central thrust. You have 11 agents and officers who are implicated in this. They're going to be asked, as part of this investigation, have you ever done this before? And I think that's the biggest question out there.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Paul Rosenzweig.
ROSENZWEIGI think that it's important to draw a distinction here that is getting a little mixed in the discussion.
ROSENZWEIGClearly, this type of conduct, unacceptable and reflective of personal failing on the parts of these agents, and possibly a management failure, but to tie that to the difficulty, for example, in protecting Mary Cheney or something like that, that is, to my judgment -- based on my experience, kind of watching the Secret Service play out -- mixing apples and oranges 'cause the service is always going to have a difficulty interacting with its principles, right? They're all strong-willed people who got to their positions as president and vice president, you know...
REHMI don't want to get off track here. The issue is what happened or did not happen in Colombia. The question is, to your knowledge, Ron Kessler, has this type of behavior occurred previously?
KESSLERNo, absolutely not. You know, I've been able to get a huge number of agents. And former agents have talked to me. Usually, I waterboard them -- that worked very well. And I think I uncovered all of the foibles, and absolutely nothing like this has happened before. This is totally unprecedented.
REHMSo, Michael Isikoff.
ISIKOFFWell -- and, certainly, I've heard nothing that contradicts that, but it does seem to beg the question. We had 11 agents, two supervisors who were involved in this. It does seem kind of odd that that, you know, many would be involved and would think it's OK if they hadn't either engaged in it before or seen it happen before. And, look, I can't answer the question one way or the other, but I'm just saying that's a sort of common investigative question that I think anybody would have when they see these circumstances.
KESSLERSee, the connection between this and the laxness is these agents are aware of the corner-cutting, aware that Secret Service winks and nods at most -- the most basic security protection, such as letting people into events without magnetometer screening. And they obviously, as I said, are idiots. But the fact that, you know, your boss is doing all kinds of things that are against procedure eventually, I think, does corrupt the judgment of agents at lower levels.
REHMJon Adler, I'm going to give you the last word.
ADLERI'm reluctant to accept any characterization of these guys as idiots. And the reason I'll place a lot of emphasis on that is we're talking about people who otherwise in their official on-duty capacity risk their lives to protect the president. That's an easy thing to say. It's a hard thing to do.
ADLERAnd if we surveyed the country and found that how many people are willing to die for President Obama, irrespective of whether they voted for him, I'd expect it to be a very short list. I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt of due process. In the end, if the allegations are proven, then we can call them whatever we may want, but...
REHMThank you, Jon Adler. And we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about what happened -- or, as you said, it's no longer allegedly that it happened, Michael Isikoff, but that, in fact, some have admitted -- some Secret Service agents have admitted to the events as outlined. And here is an email asking that I not use his name. He says, "I traveled for years as White House Staff advance with the U.S. Secret Service. There was a culture of adultery among them.
REHMThe phrase what happens on the road stays on the road was commonly used by them long before Las Vegas started using it. Adulterous behavior, at times, seemed to be a badge of honor among some of them many wonderful agents. But, among others, there's enough of this type of behavior not to be surprised by what happened in Colombia." And, Michael Isikoff, as you pointed out, how many agents were down there, how many involved in this scandal?
ISIKOFFWe believe the total contingent -- Secret Service contingent was about 160, so we had 11 out of 160, a little less than 10 percent. Just in response to the caller or emailer there, I think it is useful to make distinctions between general adulterous behavior and bringing foreign national prostitutes into your hotel room while on a presidential advance trip. I think it's the particulars of this instance that has grabbed people's attention, and I think that's what investigators are going to be looking at.
REHMBut have we sunk so low in our observation of what becomes morality, that we say, oh, well, adultery is fine as long as you know who you're sleeping with, but it's not fine if you bring prostitutes in? Do you think a wife would make a distinction between adulterous behavior on the one side or on the other? Give me a break, you guys.
ISIKOFFWell, I certainly don't want to be...
ROSENZWEIGNo, No. My wife certainly wouldn't. But, you know, as an official in the Department of Homeland Security, as a congressman, my question is not about the morality of the adulterous behavior because adulterous behavior, if you'd believe (word?) is, you know, is kind of rampant in America and around the world. The question, I think, that should generate interest in this show and in this city is the extent to which it happens in a way that affects or impinges upon the Secret Service's ability to conduct their mission.
ROSENZWEIGYou know, if we're going to be going on a -- I worked -- I'll say it. I worked for Ken Starr in the Clinton investigations of Monica Lewinsky. And the big argument there was, you know, does his personal indiscretion affect his ability to be president? And the answer that the country, more or less, gave was no. So, you know, that's kind of where we are right now.
KESSLERYeah. You know, the issue is whether an agent could be blackmailed into cooperating with bad guys. And, clearly, they could be with a prostitute whereas, you know, an affair with anybody is a big question mark. The -- Paul mentioned the JFK assassination. One of the big problems there was that the president himself refused to let agents ride on the rear running board of his limousine in Dallas. If they had been there, they would have jumped on him after the first bullet was fired. It was not fatal. They would have saved his life, and...
REHMYou're saying that Kennedy refused to have them ride.
KESSLERRight. Mm hmm. And by the same token, President Lincoln refused to have security until the very end. And then it was just one D.C. police officer, who went off to have a drink at the local tavern at Ford's Theater, so he was totally unprotected. That recklessness, I think, is important to keep in mind. And I think, when President Obama ignores some of the findings, some of the actual security breaches that have occurred, I think he's being reckless. And, you know, the last thing we need is an assassination.
KESSLERIf there is one, we'll have another Warren Commission that will go back and say, how could we have allowed all these problems to occur? How could we defend them? How could we brush them aside? Why wasn't more action taken? Obama, in his comment, said, if these allegations in the press are true, I'll be angry. That's not exactly the way to fix an agency and make sure this doesn't happen again.
REHMWhat do you think, Michael?
ISIKOFFLook, it's -- I think that it's a little unfair at this point to blame President Obama for anything in relating to this. The Secret Service there -- were there to protect the president. And his reaction, I think, sort of, you know, walked the line between you don't want to be coming down too hard until you know all the facts, which, I think, is a reasonable position for any president to take.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Durham, N.C. Axel, (sp?) you're on the air.
AXELThank you, Diane. I love your show.
AXELAnd I appreciate that you're talking about this subject. And you brought me on with perfect timing because I think this is exactly what I was going to talk about is that this issue is not going to be about security. It's not going to be about whether or not someone was in danger. It's going to be used by Republicans and Conservatives during an election year to pinpoint the Obama administration being haphazard with the way it, you know, rules over its dominion.
AXELAnd it's just another example of, you know, the conservative nature kind of rearing its ugly head, judging people. They were Colombian prostitutes. Oh, no. You know, what is the difference between, as you were saying before, if someone has an affair or say it was with someone's wife? We've had many examples of spies and other people who were thought to be trusted. So the fact that it's, you know, this derogatory term, Colombian prostitute, is going to be plastered everywhere to make it look like Obama did something bad in an election year.
KESSLERYou know, this is so typical of the discourse these days. People, either on the right or the left, you know, immediately assume that it's some kind of conspiracy to impugn them. In this case, the caller may not have noticed that Republican leaders of the House have been defending Mark Sullivan and defending the Secret Service -- not Democrats, Republicans. And it so happens that Mark Sullivan was appointed by President Bush.
KESSLERAnd as for the issue itself, over the years -- of course, most of the time, if there is a blackmail attempt, it never comes out because it's effective. But over the years, we had Clayton Lonetree, a Marine security guard at the Moscow Embassy -- at the American Embassy in Moscow who was compromised sexually by a so-called swallow, an intelligence term for a nice pretty girl. And he gave up a tremendous number of secrets. He was convicted. There a number of other cases like that, and that is the issue here that we have to be aware of.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Axel. Now to Inlet Beach, Fla., good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning, Diane. You know, I hear about all this stuff, and what I remember is, 20 years ago or so, when it was popular for network TV to look into the Kennedy assassination, that one of the things that they always talked about was that the night before Kennedy was assassinated that most of his Secret Service detail was in a topless bar in downtown Dallas apparently cavorting with known prostitutes.
REHMIs that a fact?
KESSLERNow, that's not true. They were at a bar, but, you know, let's not start assuming that there's something wrong with having a drink or two, you know, when you're involved in this kind of activity. There's nothing wrong with that. And that was not a factor in the assassination whatsoever. And in addition to that, you know, you can't totally guarantee that an assassination will not occur.
KESSLERAgents I talk to say, you know, it's a miracle as it is that the president has not been assassinated given the corner-cutting, but even not given the corner-cutting because, you know, he is exposed to the public. In the Kennedy assassination, of course, there are many improvements that were made, subsequently better cooperation with the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover didn't want to cooperate with anybody. But in terms of actual steps that could have been taken, the only one is that agents could have been on the rear running board, which President Kennedy rejected.
REHMMichael Isikoff, have you heard that story before?
ISIKOFFI've heard the story. And I'm grateful for Ron for -- who's clearly researched this far more than I have, for clarifying what the details were. The -- look, we do know that the Secret Service, as part of its review of this, is -- we're told, going to be setting up some sort of internal group is going to be looking at precisely what its rules are for contact with foreign nationals. And I think that's -- I mean, we got to stick to what the particulars are here and just what the guidelines are for how much contact the Secret Service agents can have with foreign nationals while they're on a presidential advance trip.
REHMHere's another email, let's see, from Donald, who says, "Leadership is responsible for top-to-bottom ethics and standards of behavior. They must require repeated agent training and make direct leadership declarations to affirm the ways agents must act, thus being true to the admirable traditions of their service and the people they protect. Some leaders should resign after the -- describing the errors they made."
ROSENZWEIGWell, without commenting on the resignation piece at the end, I agree completely that leadership is critical. But that's true in any organization. And what's also true in any organization is that, notwithstanding even the best leadership, people fail. People make mistakes. It's a human enterprise. We live in Washington in a zero defect culture, which hops on any error, any mistake of any sort and magnifies it. That's not to excuse it, but it is to put it in the context. So what I would want to know in this context is, what sorts of leadership has been going on?
ROSENZWEIGI mean, I think Ron is speaking directly to the right point, which is, how affective has the director being as a leader and his predecessors? Is there a gap, a systematic gap that we can answer with better guidance on contact with foreign nationals? Or is it a failure in culture? And I honestly don't know that much. I'm skeptical of the corner-cutting leads to prostitution argument 'cause that's kind of like speeding leads to vehicular manslaughter or deliberate manslaughter kinds of things. That argument doesn't play with me as much.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ron, you wanted to say something?
KESSLERWell, another example of the corrupting influence of Secret Service management and how it may affect the judgment of people on the ground is that when -- they're very good at -- Secret Service itself is very good at cultivating members of Congress. And one thing they do is they will have members come out to the training center at Beltsville, Md., and they'll put on these supposedly spontaneous scenarios to show how wonderful the Secret Service is.
KESSLERAnd they always get the bad guy, or they always find the explosives. Well, these scenarios are secretly rehearsed beforehand where the Secret Service tells the agents, you know, where the bad guy is, where the explosives are. So the whole thing is a big sham. You know, again, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the people in the Secret Service? It sends a message that, you know, it's fine to cover up. It's fine to be dishonest. This is a law enforcement agency. Dishonesty has no place in this agency, and that is the atmosphere that, I think, contributed to what happened in Columbia.
ISIKOFFWell, to be fair, I don't think this is unheard of in the annals of federal law enforcement agencies to cultivate members of Congress with these kind of show and tells. You know, and certainly the FBI over the years has been quite adept at doing very similar things. They can (word?) people down to -- members down at Quantico.
KESSLERYeah, but they don't dishonestly give the answers beforehand. And I can tell you that having written three books about the FBI.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Blanco, Texas. Byron, you're on the air.
BYRONThank you so much for having on your show, Diane.
BYRONI have three quick questions. Where did the Summit of the Americas go? I'll explain the incident in which this scandal occurred that everyone's forgotten of. This is the first time in history since Nixon signed the drug control act that a U.S. president has had to respond to international scrutiny for a failed drug policy. And the whole world is talking about potential sexpionage from prostitutes. My question might -- leads up to is, is the Secret Service policy to defend the president from political bullets as well because it appears that, whether impending or not, they've done so here?
ISIKOFFWell, that's the best conspiracy theory I have heard yet.
ROSENZWEIGYeah. That's just so...
ISIKOFFIt is true that there were, prior to this summit, calls for a review of a drug policy, and some of the Latin American leaders were going to be raising that with the president. And as a result of this, it got absolutely no coverage at all. But I think it would be quite a stretch to imagine the Secret Service engineered this incident in order to help the president.
REHMMichael, where is this story going?
ISIKOFFI think -- look, my sense is the Secret Service is going to have to do more than just the announcement that it made last night. This larger review is certainly part of it. It is worth noting that in their statement last night they did say the investigation is in its early stages. They've sent investigators down to Columbia, presumably to try to find the women and question them. It's going to be really interesting to see whether they can do so and how those accounts match with what the agents are saying, but, you know, clearly it's got more beats to play out.
REHMAnd you have said that there are 20 percent females within the organization. Perhaps we need more female agents.
ISIKOFFUnless they would hire male prostitutes. We have to worry about those.
REHMAnd I would doubt that, seriously.
REHMAll right. I want to thank you all. Ron Kessler, "Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire" is the subtitle of his book "In the President's Secret Service." Michael Isikoff is with NBC. Paul Rosenzweig is at The Heritage Foundation. I'll be off for the next few days, going out for some station visits, back with you next Thursday. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn, and the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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