Let's start with this. You don't cashier an entire Secret Service advance team, as the President is about to arrive in country for a state visit and not endanger his security. That may make a good sound bite. It's not reality.
Protecting the President of United States is not a matter of standing tall, wearing sunglasses and looking imposing. It's about having the professionalism, discipline and attention to detail to stand between the leader of the Free World and a host of complex, multi-faceted threats. It's about being alert, 24/7, trusting no one and never letting your guard down.
Professional security details do not rely first and foremost on their ability to shoot their way out of a situation or to speed away from an ambush in a blaze of gunfire. They put their faith in hard advance work, which focuses on the details, analyzes the threats and prevents the principal they are guarding from ever ending up in a situation where his or her life is threatened. Routes are scouted, intelligence is gathered and plans are formulated for each unique operational area.
As part of that sober, professional preparation professionals also safeguard information. Schedules are kept secret until the last minute. Communications are encrypted whenever possible and otherwise minimized. Pros know that the sharks are always circling and that a momentary lapse or indiscretion can cause a catastrophe. Pros trust no one.
Pros, in other words, do not take time in the middle of key advance work for the President of the United States to hit a strip club, get blind drunk and end up passed out in a hotel room on foreign soil in the company of a woman they met only hours before and who is demonstratively available for hire to the highest bidder.
Colombia is not a benign environment. It is home to two of the most dangerous terrorist organizations on Earth, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC has staged several major attacks inside Colombia in the last few months, one of which was a motorcycle bomb attack on a police barracks, which killed six and wounded 70. It has thousands of fighters under arms and enormous stockpiles of weapons and equipment.
Both the FARC and ELN have known connections to major drug trafficking organizations inside Colombia. By virtue of those connections and their own involvement in drug trafficking these terrorist organizations have vast financial resources and extensive reach. Vast numbers of businesses in Colombia pay protection money to drug trafficking organizations and terrorist organizations in order to stay open.
One of the major reasons that terrorist groups and criminal organizations continue to exert such influence in Colombia is the rampant corruption in the government. Drug trafficking is a highly lucrative business. It produces a lot of cash. And cash means many very bad people have the capacity to buy and sell Colombian judges, cops, intelligence officers and senior government officials.
All of this is, of course, in addition to the threats posed by foreign intelligence services virtually everywhere abroad. While most of these services are unlikely to want to physically harm the President of the United States, they are certain to want to target his communications, his advisors and meetings he attends in an effort to gather key intelligence.
Some of the techniques such organizations use are highly technical. Many of them are not. Maneuvering a security official into a situation where he can be compromised, plying him with liquor and other inducements in the hope it will loosen his lips, searching his belongings and his room while he is passed out: these are all age old, time honored techniques used by the Russians, the Chinese and many others.
Several years ago I wrote a book about CIA called Beyond Repair. Among the points I made in that book was that the Agency had lost some of its elite status and begun to attract and to promote individuals who did not have the requisite dedication to duty. It was in danger, in other words, of becoming just another federal bureaucracy, bereft of the unique esprit de corps it once enjoyed.
Similarly, the Secret Service agents caught up in the prostitution scandal in Columbia have apparently lost any sense of commitment to public service they may have once had. They not only compromised the image and integrity of the office of the President of the United States, but also violated every basic professional precept of individuals employed in the fields of security and intelligence. Nowhere was there any indication that they viewed themselves as servants of the people of the United States. Rather all evidence is that they treated their status as some sort of license to party and carouse at our expense.
Some of these individuals have already left the service. Many more, almost certainly, deserve to follow them out of the door. Activity of this kind, in the middle of a Presidential advance, does not occur on this scale unless a climate has been created to tolerate and encourage it.
There needs to be swift, decisive action across the board in the Secret Service to make sure that this climate has been destroyed and the workforce as a whole has internalized the necessity for discipline and professionalism "Wheels up, rings off" may work for bored salesmen on their way to a convention in Vegas. It does not work for an outfit dedicated to keeping the most powerful man on the planet safe and secure.