Bloomberg News

Secret Service Agent Selection Tougher Than Harvard

April 25, 2012

A Secret Service agent offstage watches as President Barack Obama speaks during a fundraiser at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, on May 26, 2009. Photographer: Pete Souza/The White House

A Secret Service agent offstage watches as President Barack Obama speaks during a fundraiser at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, on May 26, 2009. Photographer: Pete Souza/The White House

U.S. Secret Service agents, whose work protecting presidents has inspired myth and movies, are supposed to live by the adage “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.”

Getting a job with the agency is one of the more difficult in law enforcement, with fewer than 1 percent of 15,600 special- agent applicants selected last year. Harvard College admits 5.9 percent. Many speak multiple languages, hold advanced degrees and take agency classes in ethics and “interpersonal awareness.”

Now the Secret Service finds its reputation and its ranks diminished by a scandal involving prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, in the days before President Barack Obama attended a summit there. Nine have either left the agency or are in the process of being dismissed, and congressional hearings are planned to shine a light on agent misconduct. The episode has sparked the agency’s worst crisis outside of an assassination.

Former agents said they can’t fathom employees consorting with prostitutes.

“The agency requires you to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, deal with people a certain way,” said Dave Wilkinson, 51, a 22-year veteran of the Secret Service who retired in 2005. Any behavior that would cause people “to feel Secret Service agents are not the best of the best or brings into question their honor or integrity is as bad as it gets.”

‘Knuckleheads’ Involved

Obama said yesterday he didn’t believe the allegations reflected widespread shortcomings. “A couple of knuckleheads shouldn’t detract from what they do,” he said during a taping of NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” program.

The Secret Service, created in 1865 to suppress counterfeiting of U.S. currency at the end of the Civil War, describes itself as “one of the most elite law enforcement organizations in the world.” The agency began guarding presidents full time in 1902, the year after President William McKinley’s assassination, and its responsibilities now also include guarding embassies and fighting financial crimes.

The last scandal that embroiled the service involved Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a Virginia couple who slipped uninvited into a 2009 state dinner at the White House. The agency took the blame for the lapse, saying its officers didn’t follow procedures.

Past Encounters

A 2002 U.S. News and World Report article described how strippers were brought into Secret Service field offices, an alleged affair between an agent and a cousin of President Bill Clinton, and a sexual encounter between an agent and his informant that ended with her dead on his bathroom floor from cocaine abuse.

The ranks of agents are dominated by men. There were no women until 1971. Today, about 400, or 11 percent, are women, according to the agency.

Agents sometimes work 20-hour days, spend weeks at a time on the road, and earn starting salaries from $43,964 to $74,891.

Job candidates are tested for intelligence and physical endurance and also undergo background investigations. Former agents said their backgrounds before joining the agency included sales, accounting, law enforcement and military. The 3,500 agents are issued guns and badges.

Recruits are sent to a Georgia training center to learn investigative techniques, and a Maryland facility to learn how to guard top officials, investigate crimes, fire weapons and arrest suspects. The mandatory retirement age is 57.

Payment Dispute

The agency is investigating allegations that employees hired prostitutes and took them back to their hotel rooms in advance of the summit in Cartagena, which ended on April 15. The allegations came to light after a dispute erupted between an agent and a prostitute who said she hadn’t been paid the agreed- upon fee.

The majority of those under investigation were agents, according to Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview. King, a Republican from New York, was briefed by the agency.

Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he’ll hold hearings next month on the agents’ behavior. The hearing will examine where there’s other evidence of misconduct by agents, he said in an interview.

Ed Donovan, an agent and spokesman for the Secret Service, called the Colombia incident “an anomaly.”

“We don’t think this is a cultural thing,” he said.

Movie Portrayal

Agents’ work was spotlighted in the 1993 Clint Eastwood movie “In the Line of Fire,” which features an agent who couldn’t protect President John F. Kennedy and is determined to save another president.

The episode in Colombia may reflect a cultural shift, said Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who did a 1978 study on agents’ job stresses that was commissioned by the Secret Service. He said he saw no indication of behavior comparable to the prostitution allegations.

The allegations suggest those involved lacked “the maturity, the dignity” that agents exhibited 30 years ago, he said. To add agents skilled at preventing terrorist attacks, the agency may have brought in recruits who are more aggressive and reckless, he said.

“I don’t think that what went on” in Colombia “is simply a couple of rogues,” Ochberg said.

A former White House aide, who worked with agents in planning dozens of presidential events and spoke on condition of anonymity, said some would hang out in hotel bars and pick up women. The aide said he never saw evidence they were interested in prostitutes.

Agency Moved

The agency’s quality has diminished since it was moved in 2003 from the Treasury Department to the Homeland Security Department, said Ronald Kessler, the author of 2009’s “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.”

The Secret Service has become less vigilant in screening the crowds at public events, Kessler said. The agency has been given more people to protect at more events since the Sept. 11 attacks, on top of their existing duties, Kessler said.

“The agents are totally overworked, overwhelmed,” Kessler said.

Since 2002, the agency has added 500 agents and 400 uniformed officers.

Some are assigned to the president, vice president and their families. Others are tapped for so-called jump teams, like the one that went to Colombia, to set up security before a U.S. dignitary’s visit.

The job can be thrilling and heartbreaking, former agents said.

Kennedy Horror

Clint Hill, who became an icon of agent dedication when he vaulted onto the presidential limousine and flattened his body over a mortally wounded Kennedy, said he never shook the horror of that moment, or of the president’s wife racing toward him.

Only after publishing the book “Mrs. Kennedy and Me” this month has he been able to absorb what happened, he said.

“I’ve had a difficult time,” Hill said. He said he was “shocked” by the Colombia incident.

“I don’t recall ever a situation like I’ve been reading about,” said Hill, 80, who retired from the agency in 1975.

Stress is a job hazard. During a presidential campaign, agents work 21 days on the protective details and then get 21 days off, Wilkinson said.

Long absences lead to missed dinner parties and resentful spouses, wrote Philip H. Melanson and Peter F. Stevens in their 2002 book, “The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency.”

Counting the Tiles

Monotony was almost as big a threat to an agent’s sanity as the thought of getting killed, former agent Gerald Blaine wrote in his 2010 book, “The Kennedy Detail.”

As he stood post outside the Oval Office’s closed door, his back to Kennedy’s muffled voice discussing civil rights legislation, Blaine said he couldn’t resist counting the squares on the black-and-white checkerboard floor.

“Everybody hated the damn tiles,” he said.

Some agents found solace in alcohol, others in women they met in their travels. One flight attendant on a George McGovern campaign plane in 1972 “entertained no less than 18” Secret Service men, according to the book “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse.

The question now is why agents appear to be going further, Kessler said.

“I’m sure those things happened” in the past, “but they were not at this proportion,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington at jbliss@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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