Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by the Secret Service; they have been my heroes. I remember cornering a presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas, when I was 13, just so could I ask him about his detail. (I knew even then that agents assigned were assigned as “details.”) A year later, at 14, I hand-wrote a letter to the director at the time, praising the professionalism of agents assigned to Bill Clinton. He wrote me back. I still remember the day when I received his reply in a fancy Secret Service envelope.
I could never shake my childhood fascination with the Secret Service, and as an adult, when I’ve written about them, I sometimes have to shake off my hero worship. This latest incident—where two high ranking Secret Service agents, while drunk, allegedly drove themselves into a crash barrier at the White House, disrupting a tense investigation into a suspicious package nearby, is heartbreaking.
There is nothing scandalous about the conduct of high-functioning alcoholics in the Secret Service. It’s not a scandal. It’s a stupid. There is something that is sadly, essentially, and just so obviously stupid about the tales of drunken agents getting into fights, hiring prostitutes, passing out in hallways. The agency has become a Seth Rogen movie.
The most difficult part of the whole story has been to watch an agency with a reputation so sterling become so easily the butt of a joke. Remember when the only thing there was to make fun of was their dress uniform? The sunglasses, the earpieces, the starchy suits?
The most frustrating part is the conversations I’ve had with other agents about alcohol abuse. When I suggest that maybe members of details should abstain entirely from drinking, they think it’s absurd. These are grown men and women, I’m told. They know how to incorporate a post-shift cocktail into their routine, and they have to have some way to decompress about a hard day’s work. After all, they are human, and their job is just really difficult, and it would be draconian to deprive them of a legal way to ventilate. They’re defending the drug. They’re not defending their colleagues.
The most worrisome part is the effect on the mission itself. The Secret Service relies on its mystique, its aura of invincibility, to deter would-be assassins. If you’re a bad guy, and you think the agents around the president are a cut above every other human on earth, you might think twice before trying something. If it occurs to you that some of them might be nursing a hangover and their reflexes might be dulled, you might decide to take your chances.
The most mystifying part is the reluctance of Secret Service senior management to acknowledge plainly and openly that alcohol abuse is the common denominator in most of the embarrassing stories.
The saddest part is the realization that that the incidents we hear about are probably very common and have been for years. We hear about them more frequently because the press is paying careful attention now.
Alcohol abuse is an epidemic. It is a public health catastrophe. It probably infects every elite organization in the country. It is not fair to single out the Secret Service here. But it is quite reasonable to expect them to take extraordinary measures to deal with the problem, in ways that exceed what another organization might do. If you’re an FBI agent and you’ve had one too many, you’re probably riding a desk the next day anyway and don’t have to worry about it. If you’re a Secret Service agent standing post, if you’re driving a car in the motorcade, if you’re doing an advance where attention to detail matter, thousands of people depend on the sharpness of your mind.
The Secret Service will not survive in its present form unless every single employee is empowered, both culturally and legally, to intervene when it appears that a colleague has had too much to drink; when supervisors have an incentive to pull those agents off details; when other agents decide that camaraderie and brotherhood are better served when agents have the balls to talk to each other openly about excess alcohol consumption.
The Secret Service’s managers—GS-14s and above—are veterans of the biggest protection details. Most are exceptional men and women. I think it’s hard for them to envision a Secret Service culture that is not lubricated with self-medication. It is hard to look in the mirror and say: “Hi. I’m the Secret Service. And I’m an alcoholic.” But if they do that—if they acknowledge their vulnerability—they can save the agency.