Elaine Kamarck: Allegations of debauchery in Secret Service have serious implications
She says terrorists could easily know if that's the case and exploit agents' vulnerabilities
She says changing culture by adding more women could help
Kamarck: Presence of women in powerful jobs has pushed back at macho misbehavior
Editor’s Note: Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She has worked in five Democratic presidential campaigns and in the Clinton/Gore White House and is the author of “Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates have Shaped the Modern Nominating System”.
Is the Colombia prostitution scandal rocking the Secret Service an isolated incident? Or is it evidence of a debauched organizational culture that permeates the entire agency when its agents are out of the country and don’t think anyone is watching?
This is the question that has been on everyone’s mind as word leaked out last week about a similar incident involving the Secret Service and some military personnel in El Salvador before President Barack Obama’s trip there in March.
On Thursday, an unnamed source told the Washington Post that such behavior was part of the Secret Service culture.
The implications are serious indeed. Paying prostitutes for sex is, of course, sordid, immoral and pretty embarrassing in and of itself. However, if in fact the men in the agency charged with protecting the president and other important government officials when they are abroad have a history of cavorting with prostitutes – in a culture that says it’s OK – the problem goes way beyond embarrassment.
This whole business may be news to the American public, but if it is really part of the culture it isn’t news to those who wish us harm. In the decade since the September 11 attacks, we have come to understand that the shady world of terror is inextricably bound up with the shady world of illegal activity. How many “prostitutes” are also foreign agents or terrorist operatives? How many others are simply willing to make money, first by selling themselves and then by selling whatever they find in the bedrooms of American government personnel to someone who is up to no good?
This is not a problem that can be solved by the passage of new laws or by moving the boxes around on an organization chart. Even the swift action taken to remove the offenders from their jobs, and to revoke the security clearances of others will not offer much of a deterrent once memories of the scandal fade and some new outrage surfaces to dominate the news.
Ordinarily, changing an organization’s culture is pretty hard work. But when the culture in need of change is a macho culture where good old-fashioned debauchery and “boys being boys” is OK as long as no one gets caught – the solution is pretty straightforward: Hire more women. Isn’t it funny how having to work alongside a woman who, for instance, knows your wife – seems to inhibit old fashioned male fun?
We’ve seen this before. Tales from the 1960 presidential campaign plane can be summarized by the motto: “Wheels up, rings off!” (As in wedding rings.) From the candidate on down, the inhabitants of the hard-drinking, virtually all-male world of politicians, and the reporters who wrote about them, covered for each other and kept things private for years.
Today’s campaign plane has been cleaned up a lot – from the candidates to the reporters – and the most important reason is that there are now a fair number of women on the plane, as both advisers with real power and reporters with real power. Can you imagine the kind of debauchery that was standard operating procedure 50 years ago being tolerated by Beth Meyers, the influential, longtime aide to Mitt Romney who has the important job of heading his vice presidential search?
Years ago the only women around were young women with no power. They were often the victims of a bad culture. Today there are middle-aged women with real power. They are not victims of the all male culture – they change it.
I know this has happened in politics, I saw it myself coming into the business at the end of the old era. And I suspect it has happened in other professions, as well. Do advertising executives still woo clients with multiple martinis and high-class call girls, a la “Mad Men”? Maybe. But I suspect the presence of lot of powerful women in that business has reduced the overall level of debauchery.
If there does turn out to be a culture of debauchery in the Secret Service, it will not come as a surprise. After all, the “protection professions,” if you will – Secret Service, police, military – are among the last professions to be overwhelmingly male. And yet, as we’ve seen in the military, when technology takes over from muscle, women start to do the same things as men. In the workplace they begin to go where only men used to go.
And outside of the workplace? Well, it’s hard to imagine an organization where the women head out to a brothel together.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elaine Kamarck.