When a "Yankee White" Clearance Meant Something
John McCain is more than a little ticked. And rightfully so.
True, the Arizona Senator is given to periodic fits and snits (as we've noted on these pages). But this time, his outrage is spot-on, because the Pentagon appears to be stone-walling on the prostitution scandal that ensnared Secret Service and military personnel, performing advance work for President Obama's recent visit to Colombia.
More from "The Oval" at USA Today:
Sen. John McCain doesn't think Pentagon officials investigating military personnel involved in the prostitute scandal are being very forthcoming.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and McCain, the panel's ranking Republican, met with Pentagon officials today to discuss allegations of misconduct involving military personnel who were in Cartagena, Colombia, ahead of President Obama's visit earlier this month for the Summit of the Americas.
But McCain said the Pentagon officials seemed unprepared and provided "appallingly little new information" on the military investigation of 12 servicemembers who have been ensnared in the prostitution scandal.
"The Department of Defense briefers did not even know the date the president arrived or the name of the senior military commander on the ground in Cartagena," McCain said in a statement.
Much attention has been focused on the Secret Service. The agency moved to quickly oust nine agents, while three others implicated in the episode have been cleared of serious misconduct. But the investigation of the military personnel — who would face punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — has moved along a slower pace.
The senator from Arizona added: "We need to know the facts. We need to know the impact of this potential misconduct, which occurred less than a day, or perhaps hours, before the president arrived in Cartagena, on the performance of the military Joint Task Force charged with his security. Yet, we are being denied access to the information we need in order to make informed judgments or take needed actions. This is entirely unacceptable."
Appearing on "Fox and Friends" this morning, McCain said the officer who delivered yesterday's brief was a Navy Admiral, so the incomplete presentation wasn't delivered by some low-level staff officer. It's hard to imagine a flag officer going into a high-level briefing so unprepared, unless he was directed to "take one for the team."
Indeed, the military's handling of the scandal has been rather puzzling. While the Secret Service has been forthcoming (according to Congressional sources), the Pentagon has provided information reluctantly, as evidenced by yesterday's presentation for Senators Levin and McCain.
So, what is the Pentagon trying to hide? That's the $64,000 question. Various military p.r. flacks have suggested the information flow has been slow because investigators must respect the rights of the accused. Fair enough, but isn't the Secret Service operating under similar restrictions regarding its agents. Yet, the agency has provided more information than its military counterparts.
We're guessing the scandal runs deeper than the Pentagon wants to admit publicly, and they're trying to conduct damage control before going public. It's a strategy that's been tried time and time again, but unfortunately, it rarely works. Usually, the drips of new information outpace the control efforts, and senior officials usually wind up with egg on their faces.
Still, there is more than a bit of hypocrisy in media coverage of this sorry spectacle. While the latest disclosure about the Secret Service or the military become's the newest headline, the stenographers in the White House Press Corps blithely accepted claims that all White House staffers have been cleared of wrong-doing, after a one-week inquiry by the Chief Counsel's office. What's that old line about the fox guarding the chicken coop?
There's also the matter of who exactly is protecting the POTUS and providing support for presidential visits. Everyone involved in those tasks must pass a Yankee White background check, aimed at eliminating anyone whose habits or past problems might make them a potential risk. Yankee White is the most rigorous check in the U.S. government; by some estimates, less than 5% of the population can meet the requirements for that clearance.
But we're also reminded that standards began to slip in the mid-90s. As former FBI Agent Gary Aldrich revealed in his book Unlimited Access, clearances were given to Clinton Administration staffers with issues that would ordinarily disqualify them. If this degradation of standards has become widespread, then it's easy how Secret Service agents and military personnel could fall prey to temptations in Colombia and elsewhere.
When this scandal broke, we reached out to a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant who served in the White House Communications Agency during the Bush 41 presidency. He expressed amazement that more staffers had not been summarily fired; during his time at the agency, anyone who violated organizational standards were fired and out the gate by the end of the day. Other WHCA personnel referred to them as "sundowners."
By our count, only a handful of Secret Service agents have left the organization over this scandal, and one was allowed to retire with full pension benefits. On the military side, individuals implicated in the Colombian matter have lost their security clearances and will (presumably) receive additional punishment in the future. When that happens, the real stat to watch is the number of individuals who receive administrative punishment.
While that type of sanctions may be appropriate in some cases, potential breaches of national security--like the one that occurred in Colombia--deserve more serious punishment. If only a couple of agents and military members do the "perp walk," start looking for that big lump under the rug. As the Chief would say, a Yankee White clearance once meant something, and senior officials could rest assured they were being served by the nation's elite. In the wake of the hooker scandal, that assurance has been gravely damaged.