Two-thirds of National Journal's National Security Insiders say the Secret Service scandal in Colombia does not call into question the agency's ability to fully protect President Obama.
As the Secret Service continues its internal investigation of allegations that agents brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms in Cartagena, some lawmakers called for an inspector general's probe to determine if misconduct is widespread at the agency. Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the president's safety and national security could be at risk.
Most Insiders, 68.5 percent, were more optimistic. "Actions of a few knuckleheads should not undermine the entire service," one Insider said. Another said the leadership of the senior agent who discovered and acted rapidly on the matter indicates an "impressive" management of the Secret Service. "We have scandalous behavior, yes, but also an agency that learns, corrects mistakes, and deals with the consequences," the Insider said.
"The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater," another Insider said. "Thoroughly investigate the matter, punish those involved, take measures to mitigate the problem happening in the future, and move on. The sensationalism of this story, however, will make any common-sense solution difficult to do."
Another 31.5 percent of Insiders were critical of the service.
One said that the "deplorable behavior" displayed days before Obama's visit to Colombia, where the FARC still forms an active insurgency, demonstrates poor judgment and a lack of discipline. "As one who worked on White House and [secretary of State] advances overseas, we took security for the venues and schedules very seriously and would only see partying after the POTUS trips," the Insider said. "More heads need to roll, as this is most likely not an isolated incident in what looks like a fraternity-like culture in the current Secret Service. Money and sex are usually the reason for Beltway falls from grace; in this case, it was for being cheap and failing to pay that got them!"
With the general election in full swing, 68.5 percent of Insiders said foreign-policy issues will cut in favor of Obama over the presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
"The incumbent has an advantage here. Obama has been careful to guard his national-security flank. Romney is finding it hard to find an opening, and the defense budget issue is not cutting [it] for him," one Insider said. "The public is concerned with jobs and the economy, not the level of defense spending, which is at an historic high, in any case."
For now, Obama has an edge, another said. "Rarely in modern history has a Democratic presidential candidate been less vulnerable on national security and foreign policy," the Insider said. "Obama has prosecuted wars, captured bin Laden, killed hundreds of terrorist leaders through drone attacks, provided valued but low-cost support to the British-French-led Libyan campaign."
Another Insider said: "As foreign-policy experts, we can nitpick this question to death. But to the broader electorate, you can summarize the foreign- policy debate in two words: 'bin Laden.' "
Another Insider argued the most "clever" of the two candidates will gain an advantage on foreign-policy issues. "Romney will get hurt if he trots out my hardcore neocon bubbas," one Insider said. "At the same time, at a critical point, [Obama] has stopped leading on Afghanistan. Time for him to again pick up the flag and feign deep interest."
1. Does the Secret Service scandal in Colombia call into question the agency's ability to fully protect President Obama?
- No 68.5%
- Yes 31.5%
"It calls into question the leadership at the Secret Service and how this was allowed to happen. The Secret Service is a wonderful group of dedicated professionals, and a small number of irresponsible hooligans have put a stain on its otherwise stellar record. Leadership is acting—and must be acting—to make sure those responsible are punished and that it never happens again."
"The [Secret Service] has a long record of strong performance. It is important to determine, however, whether this is an isolated incident. Hidden relationships with prostitutes could leave ... agents vulnerable to being suborned by foreign intelligence services or criminal gangs."
"Off-duty sexual behavior is irrelevant."
"This was an aberration based on the breakdown of supervisory leadership that occurs from time to time in organizations. Mark Sullivan is being allowed to do his job, and that should continue. Any wider linkages to [General Services Administration] or other issues is off base."
"The behavior in Colombia was despicable but rather far removed from the work of the presidential protection detail."
"After a few ritual reprimands, and maybe a blue-ribbon commission, we'll get back to the much juicier GSA scandal."
"While the behavior in Colombia certainly showed poor judgment by a small portion of the overall presidential protective detail on their own time, there is no evidence that it impacted the protective mission, and the offenders will be dealt with administratively. This isn't a matter about security, it's about politics, and [because] the Republicans have precious little hope of beating Obama in the general, they need to make as many mountains out of molehills as the media allows them to."
"This conduct was unprofessional—pure and simple. One has to wonder how dedicated these agents really are to their primary mission. There needs to be a thorough house-cleaning in the Secret Service."
"If, as some claim, the conduct in Cartagena is a practice and not an isolated incident, agents would open themselves to blackmail."
"The contact with foreign nationals by security detail outside their official requirements is potentially an opportunity to breach internal security procedures. Not good."
"Undoubtedly ... this problem may be more systemic than we know. Although a certain answer to this question will not be known until the investigation runs its course, the susceptibility to blackmail alone should give us pause."
"People who knew better flouted the rules. One has to worry...."
"It smacks of a routine 'boys night out' custom that bespeaks serious vulnerabilities."
"In addition to evidencing bad judgment, I would have thought that the fundamental ethos of a 'secret service' was to not call attention to themselves—not least in so embarrassing a manner."
"Protecting the president is the most critical function of the Secret Service. Those charged with performing that function need to act the part 24/7—especially when in a country with a history of violence like Colombia."
2. Mitt Romney believes President Obama is vulnerable on national-security and foreign-policy issues, areas the administration will be eager to contest. Which way will these two issues cut in the presidential election, in favor of Obama or Romney?
- Obama 68.5%
- Romney 31.5%
"For now, the edge has got to be [Obama's]. It is tough to critique the president's management of alliance relationships in dealing with Libya, Iran, and the Arab Spring; his firm middle course in dealing with alliance partners trying to solve the euro problem; and yet his capacity for unilateral action and the risks entailed in going after terrorists. Romney, who has been too trigger-happy on these issues so far during the campaign, shows troubling signs of inexperience."
"It will be Obama unless there is a real or perceived failure between now and then. Romney has no record, and while one can question the results of the Obama administration, the fact remains we are off the ground in Iraq and [Osama bin Laden] and [Anwar] al-Awlaki are dead."
"POTUS has handled the issues rather well so far. A Romney attack will be viewed as a straw-man attack."
"Obama's record speaks for itself. So does Romney's hapless search for an angle of attack on national security. If talking tough on Russia is the governor's strategy, the president doesn't have much to worry about."
"With nobody to his left, Obama will continue to move to the right in the hope of forcing Romney to the extreme right, leaving the country with two parties, far Right and extreme Right. Dumb and dumber."
"But, as the famous soothsayer reminds us about no facts about the future, international dynamics could shift quickly to Romney in the months before the election."
"If candidate Romney wants a fight on foreign policy or national security, trying to take one of President Obama’s strengths and turning it into a weakness, bring it on. But the Democrats need to know that the record will not speak for itself. Obama and his surrogates must pound the drum on the president’s proven record in this area and hammer Romney’s lack of experience and proven judgment in this critical area. The Democrats need not run scared on national security debates any longer. Frankly, Democrats never did need to cede this ground, and doing so hurt the country as a whole, as a great nation requires a vigorous debate on these issues from two strong national security visions. This time round, the Democrats have the better case to make, and make it, they must."
"Let me understand this: A former state governor without national-security experience is going to win a contest with a president who did Afghanistan, Iran, and bin Laden over a four-year term?"
"Obama's strongest suit. He got bin Laden—Bush looked like he wasn't trying. Drone strikes in Pakistan are popular in the United States. Obama could lose his national security edge if he lets his budget wonks talk him into deeper cuts in defense."
"The Obama record on counterterror, the Iraq pullout, and managing major power relations (China, Russia) is credible and has strong support from voters weary after more than a decade of expensive foreign adventures."
"Romney can't even believe this himself—watch what he talks about on the stump in the fall—it won't be foreign policy."
"Romney's criticisms of Obama's handling of foreign affairs will gain political traction only if he can show voters that his policies would be different and would work at an acceptable cost. So far, Romney has not shown that to be the case. Given that Clinton, then Bush, and now Obama have broken their lances on issues like China, Iran, and North Korea, it's not likely that he will."
"If national security and foreign policy are the two issues Romney's advisers think will win them votes against Obama, then this election is going to be far less competitive than I thought it would be. Perhaps someone should whisper, 'unemployment rate and gas prices' into their collective ears."
"Romney hasn't evinced any sort of coherent position on national security and foreign policy other than griping about any and every action Obama takes."
"It is a tough call, but for the majority of Americans, the priorities are domestic and economic. To the extent that Obama has successfully withdrawn the U.S. from an unpopular war in Iraq and begun the process in Afghanistan, it will be popular. That he has not been a particularly strategic or even effective international leader is probably relevant only to Beltway types, whose vote is marginal at best."
"Obama administration foreign policy is adrift just dealing with day-to-day issues. Before the election, there are several issues that could blow up (literally): Iran, Syria, North Korea, NATO and Afghanistan, oil crisis, eurozone collapse if Sarkozy loses the presidential election in France."
"As long as Romney doesn't look like a neocon."
"Obama claims success, media narrative is success, but I'm not sure where I see it. It's a hollow claim from my perspective."
"Once it is clearly understood that Obama is prepared to accept excessive risk at a time when we face possible military intervention in Syria, hostilities with Iran and North Korea, and ongoing involvement in Afghanistan, the American public will not have much confidence in the president as a national-security leader."
"President Obama is vulnerable on his pandering to Russia and his inability to explain objectives in Afghanistan."
"Obama's hot-mic moments project weakness and a lack of strong leadership."
"Substantively, they should work in Obama's favor, but threat-mongering has a way of winning votes."
"There are too many single-issue, single-constituency issues in the foreign-affairs grab bag on which Obama is vulnerable."
"This could go either way, but the continuing mess in Afghanistan, Iran's seemingly relentless march to a nuclear weapon, lack of progress in North Korea and in the Middle East, plus lost opportunities by failing to capitalize on the Arab Spring and unrest in Iran and Syria, are bad news for the president. On the other hand, Obama will point to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the military success in Libya as 'wins' for him."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Tamara Wittes, and Dov Zakheim.