Questions raised again about Secret Service culture

Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson
Members of the U.S. Secret Service's Counter Assault Team, known in the agency as CAT, are seen before boarding helicopters at a landing zone in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on March 24, 2014. The Secret Service sent three agents home from the Netherlands just before Obama's arrival after one agent was found inebriated in an Amsterdam hotel, the Secret Service said Tuesday. The three agents were benched for "disciplinary reasons," said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan, declining to elaborate.

WASHINGTON — Despite a renewed emphasis on professional ethics and personal conduct throughout the U.S. Secret Service, officials are grappling with another embarrassing high-profile episode — this time involving the after-hours behavior of three agents assigned to President Obama's trip to the Netherlands.

The three agents, whom the Secret Service sent home in advance of the president's Monday arrival for high-level meetings, are the focus of an internal review related to a session of heavy drinking after which one of the agents was found passed out in a hotel hallway.

The incident has stirred new concern about the agency, which only two years ago was rocked by a prostitution and drinking scandal involving several agents in Cartagena, Colombia, while preparing for a presidential visit there.

A statement issued Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security Committee said that panel Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., is "troubled'' by the reports of the agents' behavior and has contacted Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to request additional information about the latest incident.

"This is a drip that has to be sealed,'' said former Secret Service director John Magaw, who has been consulting with Pierson since she took command of the agency in the aftermath of the 2012 Cartagena matter. "She will seal that drip just as quickly as she can.''

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president was briefed on the incident over the weekend.

"The president believes, as he has said in the past, that everybody representing the United States of America overseas needs to hold himself or herself to the highest standards and he supports Director Pierson's approach, zero-tolerance approach, on these matters,'' Carney said.

The Secret Service agency has long argued that the Cartagena episode represented an aberration for the agency. But it was hit again last May with disclosures that two agents were disciplined related to their contacts with women. In one of the instances, an agent attempted to retrieve a bullet left in a woman's hotel room.

From 2004 to early 2013, the Secret Service has counted 824 cases where officials were cited for misconduct, according to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General audit completed in December.

Among those cases, 37 were for drug- or alcohol-related offenses, and in 26 reported cases alcohol consumption by Secret Service officials led to suspensions of security clearance, according to the DHS inspector general. The inspector general "did not find evidence that misconduct is widespread in USSS."

But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said the inspector general's office should reconsider its conclusion after this latest incident.

"Almost two years after the sordid events in Cartagena, Colombia, involving United States Secret Service personnel, I remain unconvinced that the behavior exhibited in Cartagena, at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, and this week in Amsterdam does not represent a greater systemic or cultural problem within an agency tasked with protecting vital U.S. officials, secrets and national security," Johnson said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, called on Pierson to fire the three agents immediately.

"The American people trust the Secret Service to care for their president, as he or she travels the world on behalf of the American people," she told reporters. "The question we ask, 'Where were they and where would they be if the president ever needed them?'"

The three members under investigation for their conduct were part of the elite Counter Assault Team (CAT), a unit tasked with the difficult assignment of fighting off attackers while the president's protective detail spirits him out of danger.

Members of the team have a reputation within the Secret Service of being among the most physically fit and most skilled with their firearms in the agency.

The CAT had previously been under the presidential protection division — a highly sought-after post that required several years of service to merit consideration, said Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and author of Life in the Bubble.

As a result, Bongino said, the culture of CAT was heavily influenced by some of the agency's most seasoned agents. (Notably, three Secret Service agents involved in the Cartagena incident also were CAT members.)

But about a decade ago, the CAT was separated from the presidential protection division.

"I'm not saying this is the sole reason for the incident the Netherlands, but the lack of seniority on the CAT teams may have something to do with it," Bongino said. "When they were under the PPD, these sorts of problems were unheard of.''

Since Cartagena and Pierson's appointment — the first woman to lead the agency — Magaw said ethics and agent conduct have been elevated to a new emphasis, from the training academy to field offices throughout the country. Of the 13 employees suspected of soliciting prostitutes in the Cartagena case, according to the DHS inspector general's report, three employees returned to duty, six either resigned or retired, and four had their clearances revoked and were removed.

"Every employee has been briefed on this,'' Magaw said, adding that there are restrictions on drinking less than 10 hours before reporting for duty and foreign nationals are prohibited from agents' hotel rooms.

"There are always going to be those who are a little slow to get with the program,'' Magaw said. "In those cases, you have to come down with a strong but fair penalty.''