The Secret Service Prostitute Scandal: Why Colombia Makes It Such a Security Risk

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Pedro Mendoza / AP

The Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia, pictured on April 19, 2012. The U.S. Secret Service scandal took place in the hotel earlier a few days earlier.

In the matter of the Secret Service and the Cartagena, Colombia, prostitutes, everything that needs to be said about character and judgment has already been said. So, I'll stick with the nuts and bolts.

Colombia has come a long way in cleaning up its narcotics trade, but it remains a major source of cocaine entering the U.S., as well as a major producer of illicit cocoa, and narcotics traffickers still have a strong grip on the country. Like everywhere else in the world, Colombia's narcotics traffickers launder their drug money through brothels. I know nothing about the club where the Secret Service agents collected the girls they took to their hotel rooms — and it may be completely untainted by organized crime — but common sense ought to have suggested to the Secret Service agents and military personnel involved that it wasn't the best place to go in search of companionship.

For one thing, they ought to have been aware that there's plenty of bad blood between the U.S. and Colombian traffickers. In 1993, the U.S. helped hunt down and kill Pablo Escobar, then the largest cocaine distributor in the world. The man has a large family with a long memory, as well as a lot of connections in Colombia's underworld. I'm not suggesting the Secret Service agents were set up or that Escobar's family had an eye on them, but you see where I'm going.

I know "honey traps" sound like paranoid and antiquated Cold War spy stuff, but the truth is it still goes on. More times than I care to remember, I was obligated to sit down with a friendly intelligence service and watch one of their stings. The way it usually worked was that a camera had been concealed in an air-conditioning vent to record the event, along with sound. The prostitute hired by the foreign agency enters frame and gets down to business with the mark. After a couple of minutes the spy agency has what it needs, and its thugs burst through the door, guns in hand. Confronted with exposure, the mark quickly agreed to whatever it is the security service wanted from him. It's crude, but it's still cheerfully employed in Russia, China and a lot of other countries that maintain apparently good relations with the U.S.

So far, no one has suggested the U.S. operatives were set up, or that their romp compromised any specific U.S. interest. But the extent of the damage is exactly what the Secret Service's internal investigation is currently probing. For instance, were the girls ever in reach of the Secret Service's encrypted radios or Secret Service identification lapel pins that allow an agent bearing arms to get dangerously close to the President?

Since the scandal broke, I've seen a lot of comment suggesting that the night in Cartagena was no biggie, only a case of boys being boys. Those making this case say nothing could possibly have been compromised because all of the sensitive stuff is protected behind "hard lines" with 24-hour armed guards. That's true in principle, but then again, these people have never seen the inside of a presidential visit.

When the President visits a foreign country, the Oval Office is all but disassembled and put on a plane to accompany him. Boxes and boxes of top-secret documents, laptops, thumb drives, badges, etc. all are taken along. And with the hundreds of staffers and hangers-on who accompany a President, visits instantly turn into a three-ring circus — without a circus master. Of course, there are regulations and warnings about hotel maids being in the pay of the local spies, but invariably someone will take a top-secret document back to his bedroom for a little nighttime reading. Trust me, putting 20 prostitutes in the middle of a mix like this adds a fourth ring to the circus.

The key point to remember is that the Secret Service has a strict no-fraternization policy, as does everyone else with a top-secret security clearance. Hanging around brothels anywhere in the world is flashing red sign of bad judgment — and an open invitation for the locals to pilfer what they can. Having had my own brushes with the CIA's no-frat, I know it's a painfully oppressive system. But on the other hand, no one ever made me work at the CIA.

Playing down the scandal, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that common sense can't be legislated. He's right in one sense, but there's a lot more Congress could do to fix this. Congress knows that this isn't the first instance of partying going on during a presidential visit. In fact, the deeper investigators dig, the more I expect revelations that more than a little laxity has crept into the system over the years. If Congress had been serious about its oversight responsibilities, it would have come down on this a long time ago.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.