Shortly before 11 p.m. last Wednesday, two senior Secret Service agents drove their government car through an active bomb investigation at the White House and into a security barricade. The pair was on their way back from a work party at a Chinatown bar about eight blocks away. The investigation into the March 4 incident is ongoing, but the available evidence suggests the two agents had been drinking. According to the Washington Post, the only reason we don’t know that for sure is because a senior supervisor stepped in and ordered that officers at the scene let the agents go without a field sobriety test.
The incident is the latest in a long and troubling string of embarrassments for the Secret Service, and it raises serious questions about whether the new director that President Obama tapped to clean up the agency, Joseph Clancy, is up to the job. It also illustrates an issue that has long been at the root of a number of the agency’s most high-profile screw-ups: The Secret Service has a drinking problem.
Consider a few of the agency’s recent drunken hits: In March of last year, two counter-snipers suspected of drinking were in a car accident in South Florida just before the first family’s arrival. That same month an agent was found drunk and passed out in a hotel hallway in Amsterdam the day before Obama was set to arrive. In 2012 a dozen agents spent a boozy night in Cartagena, Colombia, in the company of prostitutes. And in 2009 an agent on a presidential detail in Asia had to be retrieved by a superior after spending a drunken night in a Thai brothel.
Following the Colombia prostitution scandal, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s Office provided a rare—albeit somewhat redacted—peek inside the agency. The results weren’t pretty. According to the report, there were at least 37 cases of misconduct involving alcohol or drugs between January 2004 and February of 2013. During that same period, employees had their security clearance suspended 26 times due at least in part to concerns about their alcohol consumption, and an additional five times over their “drug involvement.” On 21 other occasions, security clearance warnings were given in connection with alcohol.
There’s reason to believe that those numbers paint only part of the picture. In an electronic survey given to members of the Secret Service by the IG following the prostitution scandal, excessive drinking topped the list of questionable behaviors that employees said they were aware of within the agency. Ten percent said they knew of co-workers having too much to drink either while on duty or off, and roughly three in four of those who reported personally observing their colleagues overindulge said they did so during a protective assignment. More than half of those who said they were aware of the problem, meanwhile, described it as “more than isolated” within the agency, while one in five called the behavior “systemic.” The vast majority (86 percent) of respondents who said they witnessed the binging, however, also said that they did not report it to a supervisor.
Of course, even if they would have, this latest incident suggests the powers that be may not have done anything about it. According to the Post, rank-and-file officers who were at the White House last Wednesday had wanted to arrest the two agents—but a more senior supervisor stepped in at the last second to send them on their way.
The two agents have since been reassigned to what the agency has described as "non-supervisory, non-operational” jobs, but they haven’t been placed on administrative leave as other agents have in the past. That would appear to run afoul of the “zero-tolerance policy regarding incidents of misconduct” that then-agency spokesman George Ogilvie cited following the 2014 incidents in Florida and Amsterdam. Fittingly, Ogilvie is reportedly one of the two agents involved in last Wednesday’s post-party incident.