Thirty-one years ago, people around the world watched as the U.S. Secret Service fulfilled its most important duty.
As a 31-year-old special agent, Tim McCarthy took a bullet in the belly in March 1981 when John Hinckley shot at President Ronald Reagan outside a Washington, D.C., hotel. Today, people are talking about the Secret Service again, but not for acts of valor.
Even President Barack Obama has cracked jokes about the boorish behavior of a handful of Secret Service agents in Colombia who embarrassed the agency. Nine staffers as of now have lost their jobs as tales of heavy drinking and consorting with prostitutes in Cartagena have gone public.
McCarthy, who did two tours on the presidential detail over nine years and is now the , said he was stunned by the scandal.
None of the agents who took part in the escapade were part of the President’s personal security team, according to reports.
“What I was hearing was incredibly stupid,” McCarthy told Patch in an interview Wednesday. “What was more important was not what was incredibly stupid or morally offensive, but was security compromised or were agents on duty impaired. Since that time, we have found out that security was not compromised and no one was on duty that was impaired.”
That this scandal erupted because an agent was haggling over price with “a woman of the evening” brings a two-word response from McCarthy.
In the big picture, the Secret Service has 4,400 sworn members, so with that number of employees, a few “ knuckleheads,” as President Barack Obama described them, might wind up on duty.
“In any large agency, unfortunately, people do stupid things,” McCarthy said. “This was stupid, and now it is how you handle that. That is the most important part. To give credit where credit is due, you have seen few agencies anywhere that handled it as quickly and effectively as the Secret Service.”
McCarthy knows current Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. They served together in the ranks and they remain in contact today. McCarthy lauds Sullivan in the work he has done not only in this case, but also in the case of the Salahis, the couple who managed to get into a White House State Dinner in November 2009 without a formal invitation.
Sullivan, who has been at the top job at the Secret Service since 2006, implemented a stricter set of rules for agents traveling in advance parties since the Colombia situation came to light. It appears he still has the support of the Obama administration and that does not surprise, nor disappoint, McCarthy.
“He has taken responsibility for it, and taken responsibility for (the Salahi) incident,” McCarthy said. “If you look at the White House and the hundreds of thousands of people that come through for various events, things happen from time to time. People get through that shouldn’t get through. It depends on their proximity to the president and what their intent is, so I am not surprised that he has survived.
"In Washington, they are always looking to chop someone’s head off, but I think he has handled both very well.”
No one can reasonably deny that Secret Service agents are under pressure to perform at the highest level every minute of every day. Naturally, they might want to relax, but what the agents did here cannot be excused, according to McCarthy.
“There is no question there is a great deal of pressure while assigned to the presidential detail because a mistake can lead to the death of the leader of the free world,” he said. “But that doesn’t excuse boorish behavior or behavior that might compromise security. The stress is part of the job and if you can’t do it, you shouldn’t be on the presidential beat. I don’t think these people were on the presidential division, they were support people from other parts of the Secret Service.”
Given the ubiquity of today's social media, the behavior was even more reckless, according to the Orland Park police chief.
“Even if it was two days after the president left ... it was still incredibly stupid and they should have known better to do anything like that,” McCarthy noted. “It could have ended up on Facebook or Twitter.”
For an agent as revered as McCarthy, does it hurt him to see the Secret Service as fodder for late night comedians?
“I would prefer not to see something like that, but this is the real world and that is the way it is,” he said. “They make jokes about the President of the United States and the Pope. So if anyone thought the Secret Service was immune, they are not living in the real world. The President of the United States is the butt of more jokes than we can possibly count, many of which are in poor taste.
"To think the Secret Service is above it? No. From the day it happened, I thought the Secret Service would be the butt of jokes. This will go away.”
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