April 18th, 2012
05:33 PM ET

Secret Service scandal raises question of macho culture, women agents

By CNN's Laura Smith-Spark

(CNN) – The scandal over allegations that Secret Service agents brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Colombia ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama keeps growing. And with it come awkward questions about whether a strong macho element in the culture of the U.S. Secret Service could pose a threat to security, and how women agents fit into the picture.

Journalist and commentator Kiri Blakeley asked in a blog post Tuesday why there are not more women Secret Service agents to counter this kind of bad behavior.

"The reason there should be more is simple: Women don't get into trouble the way men do," she wrote, suggesting that women make better moral choices than men.

"Seriously, can you imagine a bunch of Secret Service gals going on a trip to Colombia, where they are scheduled to secure the environment for their boss, who happens to be, oh, the most powerful man in the world, and then hiring a bunch of call guys?" she asks.

The identities of the 11 Secret Service agents implicated in the investigation have not been disclosed, nor have those of as many as 10 U.S. military personnel also suspected of involvement. But it is widely assumed they are all men.

However, Jeffrey Robinson, who wrote "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service," with former senior special agent Joseph Petro, said the incident in Colombia should not cast doubts on the professionalism of Secret Service agents as a whole, whatever their gender.

"They are to a man - and woman - so extremely proud, and share that pride and esprit de corps, like the Marines. And when a bunch of idiots pull a stunt like this, these men and women are insulted and infuriated by it," he said.

"But at no point was the president under threat and it never could have led to that."

Robinson puts the Colombia incident down to "alcohol, mixed with testosterone and a dash of hubris, and that's a nasty combination," but points out that bad behavior by groups of men away from home is not a rarity.

"But they are idiots, they know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave," he added of the agents allegedly involved, some of whom are reportedly married.

How many women Secret Service agents were among several hundred U.S. personnel sent to Colombia to safeguard Obama during a summit in Cartagena is not known.

But Robinson says women - who made up about a quarter of the Secret Service's 6,913 employees in 2010, according to an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission report - are an integral part of the Secret Service.

This is because women agents have to be able to do everything the men do, including expert firearms use, and are deployed in just the same way to protect the president, he said.

"They really can shoot that weapon - and when Secret Service fire, they don't miss," he said.
Women are also better suited than their male counterparts to do to do some things, Robinson said, such as accompanying the first lady if she makes a restroom stop.

They also fit right into the presidential protective division, or PPD - the innermost ring of steel around the president.

Former Secret Service agent Petro had women on his detail when was in charge of the PPD for President Ronald Reagan, Robinson said.

"They had to ride the big thoroughbred horses the same as the men," Robinson said. "Or when they went skiing with Dan Quayle, they had to be able to ski and keep up with him while still wearing the gun and the radio. Physically, it's tough."

The Secret Service has not yet responded to a CNN request for information on how its women agents are deployed.

But its annual report for fiscal year 2010 outlines the efforts made to find suitable female recruits. Those who have taken part in college sports are of particular interest, the report says, as "the goal is to target college/university women athletes who are capable of completing the Secret Service's rigorous physical fitness training program."

Women have been part of the Secret Service for four decades, with the first female Secret Service agent to die in the line of duty being Special Agent Julie Y. Cross, in 1980.

Barbara Riggs, a veteran agent of the Secret Service, marked a happier milestone when she became the first woman in the agency's history to be named deputy director, in 2004.

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter and author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect," says an under-representation of women is not a factor in how the Colombia scandal unfolded.

"They are involved in everything. There's not a problem with women at all. I just don't think there's any issue here at all," he said.

And suggestions that a pervasive macho culture within the service may have fueled the agents' misconduct are also off the mark, he said.

"When women first started there was this issue, but that's a long time ago. Obviously this episode raises questions like that, but it's really not representative. The problem is that the management is lax in many ways. There's lots of corner-cutting going on."

Kessler told CNN in another interview that the image generated by the scandal of agents partying hard while on work trips also is misleading. "They are so overworked most of the time that they are forced to go into overtime, that they barely have time for a life, let alone to party," he said.

With internal investigations ongoing and a likely Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next week, there will be little in the way of good times coming soon for those caught up in the furor.

And the spotlight shone on the Secret Service may mean it's in line for a wider shake-up.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, is one of those who thinks change is overdue - and that Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan will have to go.

"I think it's time to put somebody else in there to make sure we're getting a different culture in the Secret Service," Forbes told CNN.

CNN's Brian Rokus, Dana Bash and Stacia Deshishku contributed to this report.


Topics: President Obama • Secret Service • Women

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Laura

    In other countries they use women because, as stated in the article, they are'nt worried that women will get side tracked by sex as men are. This happens far too often not to see the logic. These guys should all be fired and prosecuted for putting our national security in question.

    April 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  2. Jack

    Seriously, can you imagine a female astronaut donning an adult diaper and driving halfway across the country to assassinate her boyfriends lover? hmm

    April 18, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
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    April 19, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  4. Marie

    Really? Females have babies – they are required to travel as much as their male counterparts. If they come back to work 6 wks after having a baby, they are subject to travel and most don't want to leave their newborns, so in turn they leave the Service. As for security – do you honestly believe that these callgirls are more likely to get into secret documents, that I'm sure these guys just carelessly leave around in their hotel room, than the hotel employees who know weeks and months in advance of the President's arrival – who have KEYS to the rooms of all the Agents? Think about common sense here. The Agents may not have but we should.....

    April 19, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  5. John

    Ridiculous. Having been an agent for six years, I observed both men and women that could not run or do a pull up, yet the we're allowed to graduate.

    Admitting more women is not the answer. How about holding agents to the physical requirements that are already in place, yet ignored.

    April 19, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  6. Lou

    These "Bozo's" are obviously not working very hard at all. First they hire 21 whores to entertain them on our tax dollar. Now, they want to hassle Ted Nugent for a non-threatening comment about the Oval Office joke, and again on our tab.....We need to terminate the Secret Service Mgt. asap and put someone in there who has the intelligence and common sense to discern fact from fiction.....We sure do not have that now!

    April 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  7. Reclusive Idaho Lady

    The only problem I see is that some cheepskate tried to get out of paying for 'services'. Other than that the sex trade is legal in the country where this occured. No one needed to get fired, but they all need to be reassigned to less high-profile positions. Like walking Bo and cleaning up after him.

    April 20, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  8. mindcontrol31

    Women are more protected, they engage in scandolous behavior all the time but we dont call them out on it often. Secret service people are around powerful men, they wont hire a prostitute but they might have an affair and I am certain some of them have done it.

    April 20, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  9. Lynn

    How typical is it that on top of this article is a Viagra advertisement! Go Guys!!

    April 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  10. sara

    This story reminds me of "the whistleblower" movie/true story, where UN peacekeeping forces were raping trafficked women, who were forced to work as prostitutes in post-war Bosnia. Basically the morality is the same – overpaid (and criminal) foreign nationals taking advantage of the poor/suffering in developing countries and assuming they are beyond the reach of law. I guess one difference is that the UN didn't punish those guys or the people who protected them, and the US did. I'm glad they were fired/forced quit. Good riddance, and I'm glad reporters have covered this widely!

    April 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  11. sara

    Also, I wish reporters would stop using "partying" as a euphemism for illegal drug use and sexual exploitation of women, using/hiring prostitutes, etc. It's criminal behavior and should be labeled appropriately.

    April 21, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
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  16. Peter S

    Okay I've had enough, for those of you who are employed and then like to call it work, then you stand corrected as you have no idea what that really means. You have no idea what it is like to give two hundred percent every single day. There are those of us who work, sight unseen, unrewarded, and go unnoticed. Then when something happens you are quick to condemn the people that keep this nation safe and work behind the scenes without reward. The talking heads of the news media who know nothing of which they speak and are merely reading from a teleprompter or is scripted report, love to quote journalists. These same journalists don't really do anything whatsoever, they merely dig through other people's trash, writing down and then regurgitate it when prompted by the talking heads of the news media.
    I seriously doubt that any one of these classes of employment have ever risked it all, put their lives on the line, gave 200% every single day without expecting some kind of special award. Nobody with exception to the media and the news really give a damn about what happened in Colombia or in Mexico for that matter with regards to the Secret Service agents. The fact that they had a good time, blew off some steam, have sex (with women) is a good thing. People that work under high stress levels, need to vent and have a good time.
    Their marriages are tense if not destroyed by their jobs and it might as well be noted that most of the wives cheat or have an affair while there partners are assigned to long-haul tasks. Their spouses whether male or female, have to live every day knowing that the next day maybe their last day with partners and yet none of this seems to be addressed or understood, expressed or highlighted by either the news media or journalists.
    Those of us who perform sight unseen hate journalists and you might ask why. It is simple; they run their mouths and say stuff they should not say ever. If they were part of the system they would be tried for treason for the damage they cause in their ever growing desire to obtain some kind of award to put on their wall. The Secret Service agents, did not break any laws, they didn't do anything to embarrass the president of the United States, but the journalists sure do the job on the Secret Service and the United States.
    I have personally spent over 25 years working underground and behind-the-scenes in Washington DC. I came to know Katharine Graham, many senators, congressmen, union leaders, military leaders, and presidents of big business, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Oliver North and even the wacky Dan Quayle. And I can tell you firsthand that those of us who work hard play hard but we get a chance to relax we take it to the fullest extent. See it boils down to the simple statement, there are those that talk and write, and there are those of us that make it happen or prevent it from happening and lastly there are those of us clean it up. Sadly none of you know who we are or even what we did; you just expect it to happen. We never asked for any reward nor do we want any recognition, we do our jobs and then we are gone.
    The fact that you never even knew we were there means that we completed our task. For those of you who have the audacity to criticize any one of these hard-core professional type "A" behavior pattern individuals that put their life and their families on the line every day, shame on you. The very next time you used the word "they" you remember this well, we are that "they" that does what they must and you will never know who "they" are.

    April 30, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • sara

      There are many people who have difficult jobs who don't need to blow off steam by exploiting women. It's called character and rule of law. The note above really highlights the idea that some people are above the law and don't want to be held accountable for their behavior. It's absurd to argue that because your job is hard you don't need to follow the law. It might be better to argue about how people could be better supported in their difficult work so they don't crack under pressure and start acting recklessly and endangering others.

      April 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
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