A dangerous dereliction of duty

Dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer, drunk on duty, sleeping on the job, visiting a house of ill repute – no, these are not charges brought against a member of the modern Secret Service. These are the charges for which Washington, D.C., police officer John Parker was reprimanded before he was assigned to guard the life of President Abraham Lincoln. Most of you can likely guess the exact date on which Parker last drew that assignment.

Parker was three hours late to relieve the previous guard on duty, on April 14, 1865, but Lincoln and the rest of his party had not yet arrived at Ford’s Theater to catch the play “Our American Cousin,” when he took his post. Though Parker began his evening in a seat outside the president’s box, he was annoyed at not being able to see the stage, so he moved to a gallery seat. By intermission, however, he had abandoned all pretense of guarding Lincoln’s life, and was enjoying a few drinks at the Star Saloon – with Lincoln’s footman and coachman, by the way – when John Wilkes Booth burst unhindered into the president’s box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

Parker’s career did not end there, however. Incredibly, he was charged merely with neglect of duty, and that complaint was dismissed. He remained a member of the police force and, in a management misstep that will make your head spin, was actually assigned to work security for the White House. He was asked by his superiors to be Mary Todd Lincoln’s bodyguard, before she had moved out. History records Mrs. Lincoln’s response as probably a bit less hysterical than it really was, when she promptly dismissed him.

His own department did not, however, dismiss him until 1868, when he fell asleep on duty one time too many and was fired. Yes. It was the sleeping on the job part that was too much for his bosses.

Though the Secret Service has existed since 1865, it was not until 1902 that its officers were charged with protecting the president. But for some agents, it seems as though the precedent set by Parker and his department has been kept alive into the 21st Century.

Last week, reports surfaced that three Secret Service agents who were in Amsterdam, preparing for President Barack Obama’s visit to the Netherlands, were sent home after a night of drinking on the town that left one of them passed out in a hotel hallway.

According to official reports, anyway, the punishment for such a blatant failure to perform their duty – and for potentially putting the president’s life in danger – was that they were disciplined by being sent home for not exercising better judgment. Oh, and the standard “an investigation is under way.”

During this presidency alone, Secret Service agents have failed to stop aspiring reality-TV stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi from crashing Obama’s first state dinner. The agents responsible for that lapse were simply placed on administrative leave. And, in an incident similar to the one in Amsterdam, the advance crew charged with making Obama’s visit to Colombia as safe as possible instead chose to go out for a night of drinking and bring prostitutes back to their hotel rooms. In that case, at least, the punishment was slightly more detailed. Those 11 agents were removed from Obama’s security detail, put on administrative leave, and had their security clearances revoked.

Lest anyone think such poor behavior by Secret Service agents is a result of assignment in exotic locales such as Colombia and Amsterdam, consider two agents who were part of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Parkersburg. One local journalist made his way to the airport, where he found himself on the runway, accompanied by a couple of young women who were wearing badges indicating they were part of a local Reagan Welcoming Committee.

When the two Secret Service agents approached, they had zero interest in the male reporter, but were very focused on the young women. They asked the women what they did when they were not part of presidential welcoming committees, and the women replied that they were, in fact, lingerie models employed for weekly shows at a local hotel.

According to the journalist, the two agents promptly pulled out their little black books to assess whether the rest of Reagan’s schedule would allow for them to stay in the Parkersburg area until the women’s next show.

For a bunch of guys charged with protecting the person who holds the highest office in the country, some Secret Service agents have from the beginning demonstrated they can be easily distracted, and do not always place the president’s life as their top priority. They have also shown a few reprimands and administrative leaves are not strong enough deterrents.

I would hope this latest incident will be the inspiration for better screening, followup and disciplinary measures by Secret Service administrators. Judging by the past century and a half, I probably shouldn’t hold my breath.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com