As befits its name, the Secret Service is a mystery to most Americans. About all they know is that it's responsible for protecting the president and other high-ranking federal officials. The Secret Service is also responsible for catching counterfeiters.
Like most of the quiet professionals in government, the Secret Service only makes the news when something goes wrong. Over the past two years, that's happened all too often.
First, there were reports of drunken antics in Cartagena, Columbia, in which several agents invited prostitutes to their rooms. More recently, during President Obama's trip to Europe in March, a 34-year-old junior agent -- apparently part of the elite counter-assault team -- was found drunk in a hotel hallway in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, an agent was involved in a Miami traffic accident also apparently involving excess alcohol consumption.
Once is an aberration. Twice indicates poor supervision and the possibility of deeper problems. Three cannot be so easily explained. The unfortunate but inescapable conclusion is that there is a leadership problem and a culture problem in the Secret Service.
It takes a very special person to train as hard as Secret Service agents do and to handle the stress of the job, but that is neither an excuse nor even an understandable reason for their misconduct.
And the administration's response isn't comforting. After the latest incident, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Obama has full confidence in the Secret Service and its new director, Julia Pierson.
But it's obvious senior agents aren't performing as they should, and the problem probably goes several levels above them. Too many people in government don't know the difference between managers and leaders. Managers supervise people, and they expect people to follow their orders just because of their rank. That seldom works.
Real leaders, on the other hand, know they have to mentor their juniors, set a high standard of personal conduct and inspire subordinates with their own proficiency at their jobs. Despite Obama's expressions of confidence, there appears to be precious little of that going on in the Secret Service.
Pierson is, reportedly, an affable and charming person as well as a tough manager. But most of her 30-year career was spent not as a field agent but as a personnel and budget expert. It may well be that she is a good manager, but can she really lead field agents and inspire their loyalty? Is she capable of weeding out the bad apples and ensuring that the Secret Service once again is considered beyond reproach?
It may be that she is. But it may also be that the Secret Service needs someone who is modeled more after R. Lee Ermey, the tough gunnery sergeant of Hollywood fame, than an OMB director.