The ringmaster who can't control the circus clowns

The Secret Circus may soon be looking for a new ringmaster.

The prostitution scandal involving a dozen Secret Service agents in Cartagena, Colombia, is spreading into a broader burlesque for the agency, furthered by a Washington Post report that tolerance of a frat-house culture has induced some employees to come up with the "Secret Circus" name.

But the ringmaster of this circus, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, sees no cause for alarm. On Wednesday, he went before a Senate committee looking into the scandal and announced unequivocally that what happened in Cartagena was a one-of-a-kind event.

"Over the last six years, we've done 37,000 trips around the world, and we've had no situation like this one before," he said from the witness table. "This is not a cultural issue. This is not a systemic issue with us."

Not a single member of the panel, Democrat or Republican, accepted Sullivan's blithe and categorical dismissals. Yet no amount of bipartisan incredulity, and no piece of evidence the senators presented, would budge the ringmaster from his insistence that the Cartagena Dozen were the only clowns in his circus.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the homeland security panel, asked whether the facts that the agents in Colombia made no attempt to conceal their actions and that supervisors were among the offenders "reinforce the claim that this kind of conduct has been tolerated in the past." Replied Sullivan: "I just think that between the alcohol and, I don't know, the environment, these individuals did some really dumb things."

And, what about a survey that found 40 percent of Secret Service personnel wouldn't necessarily report ethical misconduct?

"I don't know that that presents a problem," he said.

The senators learned that the agency hadn't bothered to sweep the agents' hotel rooms in Cartagena to find out whether the prostitutes had left electronic bugs. The agents involved weren't ordered to take polygraph tests, and Sullivan didn't know whether those who did take the test were asked about past incidents. The inspector general looking into the matter said that he lacks the personnel to do an investigation.

At the close of the hearing, Collins repeated to Sullivan her hope that all the evidence — including the fact that the offenders weren't all part of one group — might succeed "in convincing you that there is a broader problem here with culture."

"You know, Senator?" Sullivan parried. "I'm hoping I can convince you that it isn't a cultural issue." He even wondered aloud whether his new directives, including a provision that agents follow U.S. laws when traveling abroad, may be "draconian" and unnecessary.

The ostrich defense did not play well. Sullivan didn't seem to grasp the possibility that even though the vast majority of agents are honorable — a contention nobody challenged — there still could be a problem. His appearance had the effect of elevating the scandal category from embarrassment to possible cover-up.

Chairman Joe Lieberman of Connecticut counseled Sullivan not to "be at all defensive here because this is like a wound to a body." Added Collins: "If we ignore or downplay what happened here, it can be like a cancer."

If Sullivan doesn't change his tune, it won't be long before his superiors conclude that he is the disease.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at danamilbank@washpost.com.

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