Washington – The alleged prostitution scandal ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Cartagena has raised questions about the Secret Service's professionalism.
The public face of the service is one of steely professionals in impeccable suits, wearing discreet earpieces and packing even more discreet weapons. Agents are expressionless except for their ever-searching gaze, lethal automatons ready to die for a president.
By reputation, stoked by Hollywood myth and the public's fleeting glances at dark-windowed motorcades, they are anything but party animals.
But what happened in Colombia didn't stay in Colombia.
The exposed Secret Service secrets have put the storied agency under a different line of fire, as lawmakers and internal investigators try to get to the bottom of officers' behavior and any implications for the safety of those they protect, starting with President Barack Obama.
Eight Secret Service officers have been fired and three disciplined, and a dozen military personnel have had their security clearances suspended, in the unfolding investigation of sexual misbehavior by agents who traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, this month to set up security for Obama's visit.
The agency says it is also looking into whether agents hired prostitutes and strippers in El Salvador in advance of the president's trip last year. More reports are emerging of allegedly ribald conduct, off duty on official trips.
John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said Sunday investigators want to know whether there was any time "these activities put at risk either classified information or security." He said officials are satisfied the Colombian episode did not pose a threat to the president.
Obama joked about agents being on a shorter leash in his remarks to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night. "I really do enjoy attending these dinners," he said. "In fact, I had a lot more material prepared, but I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew."
Altogether, the perception is forming of frat boys being frat boys, except these ones have top security clearance, access to the president and constant knowledge of his whereabouts.
"They're on the receiving end of this incredibly powerful fire hose" of allegations and rumors, says Eric Dezenhall, a scandal-management consultant and author who counsels corporations and institutions. "They're going to be under it for a while. You cannot control this torrent."
As a young aide in Ronald Reagan's White House, Dezenhall looked upon Secret Service agents as "superhuman" and their professional culture "as the coolest thing in the world."
The code words — "Rawhide" for Reagan, "Stagecoach" for the helicopter (and now "Renegade" for Obama) — feed into the cool factor. So does the one thing that most people have known about the trusted band of bodyguards, their willingness to take a bullet for those they protect. Talk about commitment.
"I just don't think their reputation could be much higher," Dezenhall says. "But, as with happens with everybody now, we're going to see the humanity in it, which takes some of the mythology away from it."
The Secret Service was formed to chase counterfeiters at the end of the Civil War, a mission it still carries out as part of its portfolio of financial crime investigation. Its protective work began informally, as part-time security for President Grover Cleveland in 1894.
After President William McKinley's 1901 assassination by an anarchist who hid his gun in a handkerchief, Congress put the agency in charge of protecting presidents, then an expanding list of family members, U.S. and visiting foreign officials, and political candidates.
Presidents and their families often beef about the confines of a life shadowed by the protective detail. But it's a gentle complaint because they know the risks of being exposed without them.
In the nation's history, 10 presidents have been victims of direct assaults by assassins, says a Congressional Research Service study of the agency. Four died: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, McKinley and John Kennedy, whose slaying in 1963 was the only assassination on the Secret Service's watch.
"The work you do here is pretty scary," first lady Michelle Obama said after seeing Secret Service headquarters last year. "All I can say is, after my little tour, ignorance is bliss — I just don't want to know.
"Just tell me when — where — to run."
The book, "In the President's Secret Service," tells stories of men behaving badly, but those men were president or vice president, not agents. For all the bawdy tales of Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy, their protectors are portrayed as loyal if overworked and, with some leaders, underappreciated.
The author, Ronald Kessler, said in an interview that the Colombian episode "is the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service" yet, from his knowledge of how agents conduct themselves, "an aberration."
Consorting with prostitutes opened agents to the risk of blackmail or other avenues to eavesdrop on or harm the president, had the women been tied to terrorists or spies, Kessler said. To his mind, that makes the breach worse than the 2009 infiltration into Obama's state dinner by Michaele and Tareq Salahi, a security lapse that could have had grave consequences if pulled off by people other than two social climbers from Virginia.
Whether the Colombian shenanigans were part of a "cultural blueprint," as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested, or closer to the act of "a couple of knuckleheads," as Obama initially put it, will be seen in time.
To be sure, no organization has a clean slate and the Secret Service is no exception. In a 2002 story, U.S. News & World Report catalogued a San Diego bar brawl involving agents, the hiring of strippers in Ohio and Miami offices, superiors' tolerance of repeated incidents of suspect drunken driving by an officer, and other bad-apple episodes stretching back years.
Now, secrets, half-truths and pure innuendo spread at light speed in the age of thumb drives, smartphones and tattlers' other digital tools, Dezenhall says, so it's not easy to divine whether an organization's lapses are a departure from the norm or part of a tradition that people never heard about in the pre-digital age.
"So much comes down to somebody with a thumb drive," he says. "It doesn't mean that the inherent behavior is new. It means people who want to come after you now have the goodies to do it."
How does a scandal manager manage that?
Dezenhall says it may take an "organizational CAT scan" of the service's leadership and personnel, not mere public relations spin, to get the agency's reputation back in line with the mythology. "You don't communicate your way out of this stuff."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.