The last thing the agency needed was a senior-level agent talking to the press. News accounts were piling up. A New York Times reporter in Cartagena snagged the first interview with Suarez. The Washington Post dug into the story, coming out with scoops about the men involved, their backgrounds, and the course of the agency’s investigation. President Obama even went on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and called the Secret Service agents who hired hookers “knuckleheads.”
Despite Suarez’s claim that she could have obtained sensitive information from Huntington’s room, however, the Secret Service investigation determined that was never a real risk. It’s also doubtful that any of the agents would have spilled vital secrets during pillow talk, either. That’s because the Secret Service employees hadn’t been briefed on the details of the security plan for the President’s visit and consequently possessed no information that could have put him in danger.
But the scope of the scandal was widening. Every new story raised the question of whether a permissive attitude toward prostitution and adultery on the part of Secret Service leaders was at the root of the affair. And congressional investigators signaled that they, too, wanted to answer that question.
Sullivan, the Secret Service director, insisted that the Cartagena affair was an aberration and that his agency didn’t have a problem with sexual misconduct. But that became increasingly difficult to believe. On top of the new allegations coming out, reporters turned to a lengthy 2002 expose by U.S. News & World Report, which chronicled numerous claims of alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and adultery in the Secret Service. And the misbehavior reached the highest levels.
According to the article, the agent once in charge of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s security detail had been having an extramarital affair with President Clinton’s cousin, who worked in the White House scheduling office. The Secret Service’s own training manuals specifically warned against adultery, because from a security standpoint, “the potential for undue influence or duress exists.” In other words, blackmail—the same threat that could have been used against the Cartagena crew.
The special agent named in the story, A.T. Smith, reportedly went with his mistress “to numerous White House social events” and later married her after divorcing his wife. Smith is now deputy director of the Secret Service, the second-highest-ranking official.
After the Cartagena affair, nine agents were pushed out of the Secret Service. Six were dismissed. One supervisor was allowed to take early retirement, and Huntington was pushed to resign. (The fate of the supervisor who hired a prostitute arranged by the DEA agents remains unknown.) Anyone who hadn’t paid for sex was allowed to keep his job. One agent, who spoke Spanish, asked the woman with whom he had spent the night to write a note swearing that their tryst wasn’t a business transaction.
By drawing a line between those who’d paid for sex and those who hadn’t, the Secret Service seemed to imply it was the act of solicitation that was grounds for dismissal. But why, then, was a supervisor allowed to retire while others were fired or forced to resign?
According to knowledgeable sources as well as information obtained by the Homeland Security inspector general that hasn’t been made public, men with high-level connections or longer careers were treated more favorably. (At least one Secret Service agent is fighting through a governmental process to keep his job.)
More than a decade earlier, another IG investigation, as well as the U.S. News report, had found a similar situation with respect to internal discipline: Secret Service employees who had friends in high places received less severe punishments than those who didn’t.
The Secret Service’s attempts at damage control have only raised more questions. In the weeks after the scandal erupted, officials announced that all of the agency’s 3,500 agents and 1,400 uniformed officers—who provide security on the White House grounds and at other prominent sites in Washington and who support agents in their protective duties—would have to go through new ethics training. According to sources who were there, Smith, the deputy director, has been brought in to lecture Secret Service personnel, which some agents thought exemplified their boss’s hypocrisy and underscored how people are treated differently depending on their rank. The agency also issued ten new rules governing conduct on trips, including not drinking alcohol within ten hours of duty and not visiting “non-reputable establishments.”
If the Cartagena affair was a one-off, as Sullivan insisted, why did the agency need to issue new rules and retrain almost 5,000 employees? If the agency’s leaders didn’t think employees had a pattern of hiring prostitutes or engaging in sexual indiscretions, why did they have to warn them not to do so in the future?