Americans are frequently most hypocritical when they are responding to a sex scandal. The tale of the sins and omissions of the Obama secret service team in Colombia is still being revealed, piece by piece. The miscreants constituted a so-called advance team, flying on a military aircraft, which goes into a location where a protected party is going to be present. The advance team liaises with local police and security personnel at the U.S. embassy or consulate. It checks out security at the airport, along the route of travel on the ground, at the hotel, and at the various venues where meetings will take place. It writes up reports so the team that actually travels with the president will be prepared to provide a security envelope, working with the locals. The advance team members normally leave well before the president arrives.
All of which is to say that the advance team members are not actually protecting anyone and are basically doing a survey to improve the level of security for someone who will follow. They are not normally on 24-hour duty and, in my experience, they tend to be unmarried young men who frequently take advantage of the opportunity provided by foreign travel to hit some bars and try to meet some women. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Now, admittedly, the narrative as it is playing out regarding more than a score of prostitutes and extreme inebriation demonstrates a complete lack of discretion and is certainly over the top, but I have to think their crime is a matter of degree rather than commission unless there were indiscretions relating to what they were doing that might have compromised the security of their mission, which does not appear to be the case. It seems clear that they did not discuss what they were working on in Colombia with the women, and there was no exposure of sensitive information.
Not to belabor the issue, but it is not exactly unusual for some government officials, when traveling, to openly indulge in both alcohol and prostitutes without anyone at State Department or CIA even raising an eyebrow. Traveling on the government dime, referred to as “TDY,” is frequently regarded as an excuse to behave badly. And the indiscretions extend to all sexual persuasions, with some officials well known for engaging in reckless homosexual activity while traveling, including in countries where such interaction is illegal. I know of two very senior officers in the CIA in the 1990s who were pedophiles. There was considerable trepidation whenever they traveled to certain foreign destinations, but no one ever tried to stop them.
While I was in Barcelona as CIA chief, a certain U.S. ambassador with a roving (jest intended) assignment in Europe would frequently arrange to visit the city and invariably call me to ask which bars would be best for picking up prostitutes. He would describe his “needs” in very specific terms. When I complained to the State Department’s inspector general about the calls on security grounds, that he was casually discussing my CIA status on the phone and was even opening himself up to blackmail if anyone was listening in, it was treated as a non-event. Indeed, official travelers who get into trouble while drinking to excess or exercising their libidos are frequently extended diplomatic immunity by the embassy and sent on their way. In the Colombia incident, if one of the Secret Service officers had not gotten into a fight with a prostitute over her compensation and attracted the police, there would have been no story at all.
So the demands to hang these men out to dry coming from both the Obamas and Mitt Romney are perhaps more than a little hypocritical. They are only reasonable if the team was operating under standing orders or guidelines forbidding certain types of behavior while overseas, which I doubt was the case. In this instance the team, and its supervisors, are guilty of exercising extremely bad judgment, which normally means they would be slapped on the wrist and reassigned to other duties. One should note in passing that whether one approves or disapproves of the sex trade or drinking alcohol, prostitution is legal in Colombia, as is drinking for anyone over the age of 16. The resort to prostitutes by visitors to Cartagena is so institutionalized that the hotel where the Secret Service team was staying had a policy in place that they should leave their identity documents at the front desk and be out of the room by 7:00 a.m.
But let’s accept that the Secret Service team should be punished somehow for behaving badly and exercising poor judgment in a high-profile situation in which at least a modicum of personal restraint was called for. That’s where the blatant hypocrisy inherent in the situation kicks in. The same people, both Republicans and Democrats, as well as media pundits who are screaming for blood, are complicit in the Obama administration’s refusal to take any action against other real crimes committed by government employees. That would certainly include CIA staff engaged in illegal torture of terrorism suspects under George W. Bush, as well as the people who approved of and enabled the torture, such as Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and several Justice Department lawyers, notably, John Yoo and Jay Bybee.
For a moment, let’s compare the two issues. On one side, a group of U.S. government travelers in a foreign country broke no local laws and compromised no secret information but behaved astonishingly indiscreetly considering that they were performing a task that of necessity had to remain low profile. On the other hand, we have a group of men, aided and abetted by CIA doctors, all of whom had to know they were acting illegally in engaging in torture but who decided to proceed anyway. The torture was carried out over the course of months and was constantly refined to make it more effective, which it did not do, as it was basically an ineffective tool, but it did become increasingly more painful for those on the receiving end. CIA Director of Clandestine Services José Rodriguez even destroyed video evidence to preempt any after-the-fact investigation, indicating that the torturers knew very well that there might be consequences for their actions. Nevertheless, all of the perpetrators have been given a free pass, and one might reasonably assume that they have even been protected and promoted for what they did. Former CIA Director George Tenet, who personally approved of the practice, was even given the Congressional Medal of Freedom at the White House, clearly a bit of unintended black humor.
Likewise, the United States has failed to take any responsibility for the scores of innocent men that it subjected to rendition, which was the abduction and transfer to a country where torture would be carried out to obtain confessions. Renditions can in no way be regarded as legal or ethical, and many European countries that participated in the practice under pressure from Washington after 9/11 are now engaged in identifying and punishing those involved. But nothing has happened in the United States, which drove the whole process. The Obama administration has even cited state-secrets privilege to block legal challenges to the procedure by those who were victimized, making the entire government complicit. Are those who ordered renditions and are now protecting the practice in any way less guilty than the Secret Service team? Where are the reprimands? Where are the forced early retirements?
And now there is the fiasco of the scores of congressmen and ex-government officials calling for the removal of the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) from the State Department terrorist list. The MEK is a terrorist cult that has killed Americans. Speaking on its behalf is material support of terrorism, surely a more heinous crime than sleeping with a prostitute in a country where prostitution is legal. So where is the Justice Department?
The American public has been thoroughly brainwashed by a media that is selling a product rather than exposing and discussing what is actually wrong in our country. The Kardashians are certainly better known to most Americans than is Abu Ghraib. Lurid tales of sex and celebrity misbehavior predominate to such an extent that the naughty Secret Service agents will be remembered long after any thoughts of torture or rendition have been tossed down the memory hole.