Loose Canons

Lost Sense of Duty

If the Secret Service can't get it back, it might as well merge with the GSA.

By 4.23.12

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The mindless gnomes of the General Services Administration and the highly-trained agents of the United States Secret Service have one thing in common: they are all federal civil servants. But the difference between them, and the import of the scandals now hanging heavily over both agencies, are symptoms of something bigger that we ignore at our peril.

We expect very little from the GSA, and we get it. The GSA culture on display in the planning, execution, and celebration of their infamous $800,000 Las Vegas conference was the inevitable result of the permissive "you'll die before you can get fired" culture that predominates many federal bureaucracies. The GSA'ers are fat, dumb, and happy in their jobs and have no interest in being responsible stewards of the public purse. Like so many other dysfunctional agencies, GSA should be disbanded entirely, which can be done without much effect on anything else.

The GSA scandal gives the lie to the liberal ideology. More government isn't better government. More government, and an ever-expanding unaccountable bureaucracy, means more waste, fraud, and misbehavior by civil servants who don't believe they'll ever be fired for bad job performance.

But the Secret Service is not the GSA, the Department of Education, or HHS. It's a law enforcement agency, an intelligence agency and it has close connections to the military. It and the rest of the law enforcement community have a lot in common with the military in terms of culture, mindset and -- most importantly -- sense of duty.

When a dozen or more Secret Service agents chose to party with hookers at the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia, their decision was a deviation from the military-law enforcement culture which needs to be as closely examined as the misbehavior they apparently engaged in. Part of it may be a diminution of character, as Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

But it is much more than that. The deviation from Secret Service practice and tradition demonstrated by the hooker party was a knowing and intentional abandonment of their duty.

Duty is a concept little known outside the military and law enforcement communities. Military members and law enforcement officers -- including Secret Service agents -- take an oath which requires them to perform the duties of their office and obey the lawful orders they are given with the understanding that those duties may cost them their lives. Like the military, the Secret Service people are volunteers. And, like military members, Secret Service agents undertake those risks willingly and by taking their oath, they seek to be a part of something larger than themselves.

Those who seek to be a part of a larger-than-self organization do so because of the pride it instills in them. They dedicate themselves to the training and discipline that is necessary to meet the standards of their cohorts. They work and train when they're off duty, running on their own time, shooting at public ranges and building the kind of tight-knit teams that can function together quickly and reflexively. Like the military, by that kind of "muscle memory" teamwork, Secret Service agents do what they're sworn to do, whether it's thinking about an investigation or throwing themselves over a president to take a bullet.

And in those off-duty times, duty is ever-present. Yes, character is part of it. Men of character don't carouse with prostitutes wherever they find themselves, they don't take illicit drugs or hit the booze to an extent that they can't be at 100% alertness and strength to do their jobs when they report for duty -- that word again -- the following day.

The sense of duty -- a deep commitment -- isn't something a person who is dedicated to their purpose can abandon. It's ingrained in body and soul, a habit and creed. When people abandon it with malice aforethought, as the suspects in the Cartagena incident apparently did by planning the big party in advance, that act bespeaks of an abandonment of duty that runs too deep for the agency to function. The fact that two Secret Service supervisors are among them tells me that the problem is not something that can be solved by firing a few people. And, if you believe the U.S. News and World Report study of the Secret Service from a decade ago, these problems have been building for too long without anyone taking them on.

The investigation of the Cartagena incident continues, and there are reports that other agents will be fired or retired. Those involved shouldn't be retired: if accountability has any meaning at all, they should be fired for cause, deprived of their retirements, and cast out as the misfits they are. When that's over, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan may have to go.

We don't -- thankfully -- know the daily inner workings of the Secret Service, nor should we. We don't know if its culture has been so damaged that its history of valor and skill has been betrayed completely. I doubt that is the case. But from the obvious failure in Colombia we can see one problem and a solution to it.

One thing we can deduce from the facts we have is that the system of peer pressure, which supports the sense of duty in all within the group, has apparently failed in the Secret Service. Like the military, its people train, practice, and work as a team and it's the team members who work hard to train to satisfy each other as much as to satisfy the training regs. It's a matter of pride and sense of duty. If the team feels no need to discipline itself, the sense of duty fails. Without that sense, that common purpose, the Secret Service becomes nothing more than the GSA.

The solution will be found among the youngest and the oldest of the Secret Service cadres. The director, whether it is Sullivan or his successor, needs to go among them himself, taking the time to find a few dozen who not only have the strongest sense of duty but the leadership skills to re-instill it across the agency. That's the hard part.

The easy part will be for those leaders to take a mandate from the director and restore a culture of duty, honor, and country that must predominate agents' thinking. The damage done by the Cartagena incident will be deeply felt by every agent worth his salt. The team the director selects will be able to spot the remaining bad apples, and there will be some who have to be sent packing. For the others, a restoration of pride and purpose will come quickly and will last as long as every agent takes it as his personal responsibility to have a sense of duty as his -- and his fellow agents' -- purpose in life.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.