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Secret Service scandal raises question of macho culture, women agents

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
April 19, 2012 -- Updated 1219 GMT (2019 HKT)
Secret Service and military personnel allegedly brought prostitutes to this hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, while on a mission.
Secret Service and military personnel allegedly brought prostitutes to this hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, while on a mission.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A reported prostitution scandal in Colombia shines a spotlight on the agency's culture
  • The Secret Service would be better served by more women agents, says a blogger
  • About a quarter of Secret Service personnel are female
  • Women agents have to do everything their male counterparts do, an expert says

(CNN) -- The scandal over allegations that Secret Service agents brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Colombia ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama keeps growing. And with it come awkward questions about whether a strong macho element in the culture of the U.S. Secret Service could pose a threat to security, and how women agents fit into the picture.

Journalist and commentator Kiri Blakeley asked in a blog post Tuesday why there are not more female Secret Service agents to counter this kind of bad behavior.

"The reason there should be more is simple: Women don't get into trouble the way men do," she wrote.

"Seriously, can you imagine a bunch of Secret Service gals going on a trip to Colombia, where they are scheduled to secure the environment for their boss, who happens to be, oh, the most powerful man in the world, and then hiring a bunch of call guys?" she asks.

The identities of the 11 Secret Service agents implicated in the investigation have not been disclosed, nor have those of as many as 10 U.S. military personnel also suspected of involvement. But it is widely assumed they are all men.

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However, Jeffrey Robinson, who wrote "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service," with former senior special agent Joseph Petro, said the incident in Colombia should not cast doubts on the professionalism of Secret Service agents as a whole, whatever their gender.

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"They are to a man -- and woman -- so extremely proud, and share that pride and esprit de corps, like the Marines. And when a bunch of idiots pull a stunt like this, these men and women are insulted and infuriated by it," he said.

"But at no point was the president under threat and it never could have led to that."

Robinson puts the Colombia incident down to "alcohol, mixed with testosterone and a dash of hubris, and that's a nasty combination," but points out that bad behavior by groups of men away from home is not a rarity.

"But they are idiots, they know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave," he added of the agents allegedly involved, some of whom are reportedly married.

How many female Secret Service agents were among several hundred U.S. personnel sent to Colombia to safeguard Obama during a summit in Cartagena is not known.

But Robinson says women -- who made up about a quarter of the Secret Service's 6,913 employees in 2010, according to an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission report -- are an integral part of the Secret Service.

This is because women have to be able to do everything the male agents do, including expert firearms use, and are deployed in just the same way to protect the president, he said.

"They really can shoot that weapon -- and when Secret Service fire, they don't miss," he said.

Women are also better suited than their male counterparts to do some things, Robinson said, such as accompanying the first lady if she makes a restroom stop.

They also fit right into the presidential protective division, or PPD -- the innermost ring of steel around the president.

Former Secret Service agent Petro had women on his detail when he was in charge of the PPD for President Ronald Reagan, Robinson said.

"They had to ride the big thoroughbred horses the same as the men," Robinson said. "Or when they went skiing with Dan Quayle, they had to be able to ski and keep up with him while still wearing the gun and the radio. Physically, it's tough."

The Secret Service has not yet responded to a CNN request for information on how its women agents are deployed.

But its annual report for fiscal year 2010 outlines the efforts made to find suitable female recruits. Those who have taken part in college sports are of particular interest, the report says, as "the goal is to target college/university women athletes who are capable of completing the Secret Service's rigorous physical fitness training program."

Women have been part of the Secret Service for four decades. The first female Secret Service agent to die in the line of duty was Special Agent Julie Y. Cross, in 1980.

Barbara Riggs, a veteran agent of the Secret Service, marked a happier milestone when she became the first woman in the agency's history to be named deputy director, in 2004.

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter and author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect," says an under-representation of women is not a factor in how the Colombia scandal unfolded.

"They are involved in everything. There's not a problem with women at all. I just don't think there's any issue here at all," he said.

And suggestions that a pervasive macho culture within the service may have fueled the agents' misconduct are also off the mark, he said.

"When women first started there was this issue, but that's a long time ago. Obviously this episode raises questions like that, but it's really not representative. The problem is that the management is lax in many ways. There's lots of corner-cutting going on."

Kessler told CNN in another interview that the image generated by the scandal of agents partying hard while on work trips also is misleading.

"They are so overworked most of the time that they are forced to go into overtime, that they barely have time for a life, let alone to party," he said.

With internal investigations ongoing and a likely Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next week, there will be little in the way of good times coming soon for those caught up in the furor.

And the spotlight shone on the Secret Service may mean it's in line for a wider shake-up.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, is one of those who think change is overdue -- and that Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan will have to go.

"I think it's time to put somebody else in there to make sure we're getting a different culture in the Secret Service," Forbes told CNN.

CNN's Brian Rokus, Dana Bash and Stacia Deshishku contributed to this report.

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