The real dangers of the Secret Service prostitution scandal

The salacious controversy revealed U.S. agents' startling weakness, and let America's enemies in on key information that could be used against us

D.B. Grady

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will open hearings on the U.S. Secret Service prostitution scandal. Mark Sullivan, the director of the Secret Service, will be called to testify. This will be his first public statement on the controversy, which involved agents soliciting prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, and later, very publicly and drunkenly, refusing to pay the tab. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) has already stated that he plans to ask: "What are you going to do, Director Sullivan, to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again?"

It's a very good question. And while the committee will certainly focus on the internal culture of the Secret Service, and members of Congress (of all people!) will certainly spend time moralizing, the real thrust of Lieberman's question isn't so much about soliciting prostitutes as it is about institutional complacency. The operations tempo of the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, and military has been unsustainably high for the last decade, with little evidence of slowing down. And this latest scandal is a visible, embarrassing example of a kind of fraying around the edges.

Secret Service agents exposed themselves to one of the most notorious traps in tradecraft: The honeypot.

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The Secret Service agents who "brought disgrace to themselves and to the United States government," as Lieberman and Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote earlier this month, exposed themselves to one of the most notorious traps in tradecraft: The honeypot. In such an operation, members of foreign intelligence (or agents thereof) lure targets into illicit, sexual relationships, and use evidence of the affair to blackmail said targets. If the trap is successful, the compromised subjects can be coerced into stealing documents, revealing information, or committing sabotage. The Colombia scandal likely wasn't a scheme concocted by foreign agents — but it could have been. And we fell for it.

Here's where it gets especially worrying. Evidence has begun to surface that Cartagena was not a one-off proposition, or a momentary lapse in judgement. If, indeed, there is a pattern of Secret Service agents engaging in such careless activities, it stands to reason that foreign intelligence services, whose jobs are to uncover exactly this kind of behavior, have long known about it. That means setting a trap for any future advance team would have been all the easier. Though none of the women involved that night were apparently involved with terrorist groups or drug cartels, they could have been. And if agents, in fact, avoided ensnarement this time, we now have to wonder: Did they avoid it in El Salvador? Brazil? How far back must the Secret Service now investigate? How many members may have been compromised?

Even more alarming is that the agency wasn't alone. U.S. military personnel were part of the "activities" in Cartagena, as were members of the Drug Enforcement Agency. (The White House investigated itself, and quickly determined that none of its staff were involved. This being an election year, however, it's not hard to imagine calls for an external probe.) And the investigations have only just begun.

The Secret Service has invited scrutiny that will go far beyond the Senate hearings. For years, the agency has resisted calls from Congress to reveal how many agents and personnel accompany the president on foreign visits. The reason was operations security: A lot of people would like to claim the life of the president of the United States. If the Secret Service revealed its footprint, so the thinking went, foreign governments, terrorist organizations, and hostile groups would know what they were up against, and plan accordingly. Well, we now know exactly how many agents and officers were in Columbia: 175. (There were 135 staying at the now-infamous hotel in question.) The agency had to release this information in order to put the 11 agents who were sent home in context. This incident, and this small bit of information, will invite new, more aggressive Congressional oversight.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. By all accounts, Sullivan is an honorable man and a dynamic leader, and his organization is charged with one of the most difficult jobs in the world. But like the much of the national security establishment, the Secret Service has fallen victim to complacency. It happened on Sullivan's watch, and he has already moved to fix the problem. Within the first two weeks, eight officers were fired and one (rightfully) lost his security clearance. And it's all but impossible to imagine agents soliciting prostitutes any time in the near future.

The Secret Service is not only responsible for protecting the life of the president, but also his dignity. The motto of the service is "Worthy of trust and confidence." It's been a challenging, distracting month for the agency, and things might get worse yet. But this isn't the worst tragedy to befall the institution, and on the other side, fidelity to its motto will be restored.

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David W. Brown

David W. Brown is coauthor of Deep State (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) and The Command (Wiley, 2012). He is a regular contributor to, Vox, The Atlantic, and mental_floss. He can be found online here.