Administration Torn on Secret Service Scandal Response

Apr 22, 2012

New York Times - By HELENE COOPER

WASHINGTON — Just before Air Force One begins its descent, a group of agents huddle in a cabin near the back to study a map, a diagram and a step-by-step itinerary detailing the president’s every move once he steps off the plane.

It is an old ritual, this last operational run-through for the special agents of the presidential protective division, the most elite of the Secret Service agents and the last barrier between the commander in chief and a host of threats. This ritual is a big reason President Obama has been so reluctant to criticize the Secret Service, as the agency reels from a scandal over suspected misconduct involving prostitutes during a trip to Cartagena, Colombia.

“How do you stand up and criticize people who have pledged to take a bullet for you?” one Obama administration official said on Friday, speaking on the grounds of anonymity. “How do you do that?”

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, added during his umpteenth briefing to be dominated by questions about the Secret Service, “The president does, as I’ve said before, have faith in the Secret Service and high regard for the agency and the job that they do protecting him, his family, protecting his predecessors.”

Mr. Carney called it “an enormously difficult job,” one that involves “putting your life on the line regularly, being willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake not just of an individual, but for the trauma that any kind of harm that might come to a president would cause a nation.”

And therein, administration officials say, lies the rub. Mr. Obama, as he said himself the one time he addressed the scandal since the news broke last weekend, would be “angry” if the accusations are proved true. But at the same time, the president and his aides are skittish about publicly lambasting the same agents who put themselves in harm’s way on their behalf.

Of course, there is a difference between the elite agents on Air Force One, who so far have not been implicated in the scandal, and the agents who were sent home from Cartagena. The elite agents see Mr. Obama day in and day out. They are with him on the golf course, the basketball court, the rope line, the giant auditoriums in big cities and the unannounced street walkabouts in rural areas. They stand between the president and reporters at Andrews Air Force Base when he is disembarking from Marine One, and between the president and his supporters when he is trying to leave a gymnasium after a speech.

The elite agents have expressed deep anger in private conversations since the scandal broke, taking pains to note the difference between themselves and the agents who got into trouble in Cartagena, who had more peripheral duties. When a reporter yelled, “Should Director Sullivan resign?” at Mr. Obama during a Rose Garden ceremony earlier this week, referring to the Secret Service director, Mark Sullivan, several of the elite agents visibly stiffened.

“It’s been an affront to their image,” a second administration official said.

Mr. Obama and his detail have been keenly aware of the risks inherent in the job of protecting the first black president and his family. That has been true since Mr. Obama started receiving Secret Service protection in the spring of 2007, nine months before the Democratic primaries began. By contrast, Mitt Romney just started receiving such protection in January.

Once in office, Mr. Obama often joked about the level of protection, including his famous “Here, I’d get shot” line when he wondered aloud, after news broke about the arrest of a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., in front of his home in 2009, what would happen to him if he tried to break into his own house, before remembering that he lived in the White House.

Unlike President Bill Clinton, who was often spotted arguing with his Secret Service lead agent because he wanted to greet a crowd that had not been “swept,” Mr. Obama, for the most part, does what his agents tell him to do. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama routinely mentions the Secret Service, often lamenting light-heartedly that they will not let him drive a car or ride a motorcycle.

His relationship with Mr. Sullivan is close and cordial. Mr. Sullivan, according to Ronald Kessler, the author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect” and the man who broke the story about the episode in Cartagena after receiving a tip from an agent, has worked to “cultivate his relations with Congress and with Obama.”

The relationship between Mr. Obama and the Secret Service becomes particularly noteworthy when viewed through the prism of the series of mishaps that have taken place during the Obama presidency.

First, there were the party crashers, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the couple who, sans invitation and with their names nowhere on the guest list, somehow made it through security at the first state dinner in 2009. They made it all the way to the receiving line, where they shook hands with the president and first lady before gaily posing for photos with other dignitaries under sparkling lights on the White House grounds.

Two years later, a 21-year-old named Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, was indicted on charges of firing a semiautomatic rifle at the White House, with the Secret Service reporting that at least one bullet had struck the presidential residence. (Shortly after that, the Secret Service temporarily closed the north entrance of the White House after a smoke bomb was thrown on the lawn.)

Mr. Kessler does not blame the Secret Service for the shooting episode but says the agency must take responsibility for the crashing of the state dinner and the caper in Cartagena. The president, Mr. Kessler says, “is not taking stronger action, and did not take action after the Salahi incident, because he’s protected by these agents who are very impressive, very dedicated, and he’s grateful.”

But he noted that Mr. Sullivan, so far at least, has survived all three instances with his job still intact, despite calls for him to resign.

Representative Peter T. King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Mr. Sullivan has gone out of his way to make himself accessible to members of Congress. “He woke me up at 5:15 in the morning this week,” Mr. King said in an interview. “I felt like telling him, ‘Mark, let me sleep.’ ”

Mr. Sullivan, Mr. King said, has been “very angry this week — damage has been done to Secret Service’s reputation.”