The sex scandal engulfing the Secret Service comes at a particularly bad time for the agency, now readying itself for weeks of harsh congressional scrutiny just as the costliest presidential campaign ever gets under way.
Six of 12 Secret Service agents caught up in the case have already been forced out, and the agency announced the fates of the remaining agents Tuesday night. In a statement, the Secret Service said two more agents had chosen to resign and three had been cleared of "serious misconduct" but faced other penalties. The agency said it was moving to permanently revoke the security clearance of the final agent, a move that could effectively lead to his termination. The House and Senate Homeland Security committees have sent the Secret Service detailed questions about the incident, and public hearings are virtually certain. An array of Republican lawmakers are calling for Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan to resign or be fired.
The scandal comes just as the agency's overall budget is going down despite its workload increasing exponentially, with President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney preparing to spend the next six months campaigning across the country.
The 2012 campaign is shaping up to be the most expensive in Secret Service history. The agency has budgeted $113 million for candidate protection, a record high which is nearly double the $65 million spent in 2004. At the same time, the administration has proposed cutting the agency’s overall budget to $1.6 billion, a loss of $65.8 million, or roughly 4 percent.
The high costs of the coming presidential campaign can also be measured in human terms. The Secret Service is planning to borrow personnel from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement bureau and convert some of its own agents from credit card fraud and counterfeit money investigations to temporary protective work for Romney and Obama.
Those moves reflect the manpower needs stemming from the agency’s growing workload, which includes missions as disparate as handling security for high-profile events like the Super Bowl and upcoming NATO summit in Chicago to guarding high-ranking U.S. officials and hundreds of visiting foreign dignitaries. In recent congressional testimony, Sullivan said his agency handled security for 216 visiting heads of state last year.
All of that comes on top of the agency’s primary missions: guarding Obama and senior members of his administration while also protecting Romney and his eventual vice presidential nominee.
Those costs are higher than usual this time around, in part because of the lengthy Republican primary. In the heat of the GOP campaign, the Secret Service was providing details for four candidates: Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Cain and Santorum lost their details when they ended their campaigns, but Gingrich -- whose own campaign is on life support -- has insisted on keeping his guards, at an estimated cost of roughly $44,000 per day.
Romney already had round-the-clock protection and agents doing advance work before his campaign stops, but the Secret Service has boosted the size of his detail since the former Massachusetts governor effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination.
The demands are far greater for Obama, who has received unusually large numbers of death threats. The agency spends weeks doing advance work for overseas trips like the president’s Colombia visit, while even short domestic stops require days of preparations. In campaign season, when Obama may do several events per day, that adds up to an enormous amount of work for the Secret Service -- and a correspondingly hefty price tag.
Still, it’s far from clear that the moves will be enough to ensure an incident-free 2012 campaign. Ronald Kessler, who wrote a best-selling book about the Secret Service and has since emerged as one of its toughest critics, believes the agency has grown so lax and careless that Obama’s safety could be at risk.
Kessler, who broke the Colombia scandal, told CBS News earlier this month that the Secret Service was routinely cutting corners and relaxing important security standards. He argued that the couple who managed to crash a White House state dinner without an invitation was indicative of a broader problem.
“They don’t have enough agents, they don’t even put people through metal detectors sometimes because there’s pressure to let everybody in,” he told CBS. “It’s like letting passengers in an airplane without putting them through metal detectors.... It’s a culture that leads to this kind of problem.”
Kessler believes that Sullivan should lose his job, but the Obama administration has -- at least so far -- repeatedly expressed its full confidence in the embattled Secret Service director.
Still, there’s no question the scandal is risks undermining confidence in the agency and even turning it into a laughingstock. One of the ousted agents, David Randall Chaney, had posted photos on Facebook showing him guarding Sarah Palin in 2008 and wrote that he had been “really checking her out, if you know what I mean.” When Chaney lost his job, Palin told Fox News: “Check this out, bodyguard -- you’re fired.”
That, at least, is one gaffe the agency isn’t likely to repeat.