Call girls and "cover-ups": What to make of the new White House-Secret Service scandal

Why the Secret Service and White House need to get their act together

Published October 10, 2014 4:14PM (EDT)

Barack Obama                                   (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, who’s been dogged in uncovering the string of failures and mishaps that have dogged the Secret Service, came through with yet another big scoop this week. If you’ll recall, back in 2012 the Secret Service was caught up in an embarrassing scandal after agents assigned to President Obama’s security detail for an economic summit in Colombia were found to have been patronizing prostitutes. A number of them were fired or otherwise disciplined, and the venerable agency became the butt of many a joke.

According to Leonnig, however, the Secret Service’s own investigation into the matter turned up evidence that “a prostitute was an overnight guest in the hotel room of a presidential advance-team member,” and that the agency shared this information with the White House, which led to no disciplinary action against the person in question because the White House determined that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

To complicate the matter further, the advance-team member is the son of a lobbyist and Obama donor, and was eventually given a full-time gig with the State Department in their office for… wait for it… Global Women’s Issues. And, finally, Leonnig reports that the lead investigator with the Department of Homeland Security’s office of the inspector general “told Senate staffers that he felt pressure from his superiors… to withhold evidence — and that, in the heat of an election year, decisions were being made with political considerations in mind.”

The White House is, obviously, pushing back on the Post’s story, in ways both compelling and not. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried to shoot down Leonnig’s reporting by claiming that the story had already been reported two years ago. But that defense carefully danced around the new information that the Post brought forward: that the White House volunteer was the son of a donor, and the accusations of political interference into the investigation. However, on the question of political interference, the White House also pointed out that a Senate investigation into the matter found that the same whistleblowing DHS investigator told other investigators that “he had not been alleging a cover-up.”

So we're in a state of uncertainty in which conflicting reports await clarification. In the meantime, the question is still out there, I guess, on whether the administration tried to influence an investigation into a connected volunteer’s alleged patronizing of prostitutes ahead of the 2012 election. If they did do that, they’re very stupid -- not simply because cover-ups almost always backfire, but also because the political conflagration they risked by leaning on investigators would far outweigh whatever fallout would come from a low-level staffer getting busy with a call girl in a country where that’s legal.

But for conservatives, the mere suggestion of an Obama administration cover-up is more than enough to conclude that a cover-up did in fact happen. And not only did it actually happen, it served as proof that other “cover-ups” also happened.

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Ah… the warm, bias-confirming embrace of inductive reasoning. The big cover-up that everyone is talking about, of course, is Benghazi, which has become such an all-encompassing mega-scandal that literally everything the administration does can be linked to it somehow. Fox News, as would be expected, wasted no time in connecting the alleged prostitution cover-up to Benghazi. Of course, there have been many congressional investigations into Benghazi, and none has turned up evidence of a cover-up. That’s why this new cover-up stands in as evidence of the Benghazi cover-up, even though the congressional investigation into the new cover-up also found that there was no evidence of a cover-up. If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

The unspoken but clear implication of Leonnig's reporting, however, is that after many years of embarrassing missteps and serious breaches of security protocols, the Secret Service and the White House are having a bit of a falling out. That’s not really an ideal situation for either entity, given that they need to work in close cooperation to ensure that the most powerful people in the country don’t get killed. Yesterday, Vox published a column by a former Secret Service agent who blamed the agency’s recent spate of troubles on the decision to move it from the Treasury Department to the highly politicized Department of Homeland Security, causing a number of experienced agents and commanders to depart and creating a toxic culture within the organization.

Political questions aside, the administration’s most immediate priority has to be reforming the Secret Service. “Cover-ups” and prostitution stories make for good, scandalous fun, but the Secret Service’s mission transcends the politics of the moment, and it’s the White House’s responsibility to ensure that the agency will be able to execute that mission for whoever succeeds the president.

By Simon Maloy

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