Secret Service must address whether crisis is a one-shot, or a pattern

In the spy novels of John Le Carre, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, on up through Daniel Silva, Dick Marcinko, David Baldacci and Vince Flynn, the “honey trap,” is common currency. The old Cold War setup — or maybe it goes back to battles between Spartans and Persians — is simple.

Have a woman seduce a stupid, vulnerable, egotistical man with information the other side needs and then either steal that information or blackmail him.

We don’t know if that was at work when U.S. Secret Service agents on the advance team for President Obama’s trip to Colombia last week allowed the volatile mix of the protection plan in the same room(s) with prostitutes. But if it wasn’t a honey trap, it just as easily could have been. That is about as bad as it gets. The only thing worse is if it led to an attack. Those agents are toast and everyone knows it.,0,816419.story

Mark J. Sullivan, the Secret Service’s director and a 27-year agent, did several things correctly immediately from a crisis management standpoint. He brought home the 11 agents involved, opened an investigation and suspended them. And for an agency where secrecy is part of the name on the door, the leadership was pretty open about it all.

Yesterday he sent a letter to the 6,000 other employees of the organization pledging a fair investigation and making sure his internal constituency understood that and stayed in the loop.

But the real issue here is much broader. In a sense, the initial part of the crisis, until now, is almost over. It’s not the bomb, in this case, it’s the fallout.

The larger issue is that no one is going to believe this was a first-time aberration by a few rogue agents. How transparent and complete will Sullivan’s investigation be? Is he prepared to resign from the job he’s held since 2006 if this proves to be a pattern?

As The Wall Street Journal reported, the saying in the agency is “wheels up, rings off,” meaning that’s party time for agents overseas. Colombia allows legalized prostitution in some areas, hence one hooker’s call to the police when one of the agents balked at paying her [blackmailing?] fee. Little did he know how much more that decision would actually cost him.

Anything less than a thorough inquiry, one that takes down all responsible, will be seen as a coverup. A crisis is an opportunity for transformative leadership. If Sullivan doesn’t do it right, his transformation will be out of leadership.

I knew two brothers who served in the Secret Service. One protected a vice-president. The other worked undercover, was caught and tortured. The job Secret Service personnel do is critical and often thankless. They’re the left tackles of security, only noticed when something goes wrong.

Sullivan needs to honestly answer all questions and weed out the bad answers. If he doesn’t, if he reports some of it and covers up the rest, the rest will come out.

Whether from media or Congressional investigations, the truth will find its way to the public. In crisis mode, it’s far better if Sullivan delivers all the bad news, makes necessary fixes and restores the great reputation of the U.S. Secret Service.

Sullivan is not part of a spy novel, as much as it may feel that way to him about now.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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