Teaching Ethics to the Secret Service (Lesson One: No Prostitutes)

Photograph by Michael Reynolds/EPA/Corbis

The Secret Service is cracking down—on itself. After 12 agents and several military officers were implicated in a night of excessive drinking and hired prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, last month, the agency has tightened its rules of conduct. Agents will not be allowed to consume alcohol 10 hours before working or let foreigners into their rooms while traveling. And their routine two-day ethics course, which since 1997 has been conducted twice a year by professors at Johns Hopkins University, has been changed to address directly the issues surrounding the Colombia scandal.

Bloomberg Businessweek spoke to Christopher Dreisbach, the professor who has been running the class for the past 12 years, about ethical problems faced by Secret Service agents, how he addresses them, and how he plans to explain to them that no, they shouldn’t hire prostitutes.

What are some of the ethical problems your Secret Service course covers?

There are a lot of questions about insider information. These folks learn an awful lot about important stuff long before the public does. And remember, most of what the Secret Service does is related to cybercrime and counterfeiting. The protective stuff is sexy, but in terms of personnel numbers it’s a very small group within the agency.

So for example, if you’re an agent who’s accidentally learned that a stock is going to bottom out, and it’s a stock you’ve been investing in toward your child’s college education. Suppose you could sell that stock without ever getting caught, is that morally OK? Why or why not? Of course, I hope your answer is no. But the idea is to get people to think about those issues.

Here’s another one: There’s a federal statute that says if a federal employee uses a car in an unauthorized way, they automatically are penalized with a minimum of 30 days leave without pay. But there have been times in the past when use of a car was absolutely necessary even if it was technically unauthorized. In those cases, 30 days without pay seems unfair and unjust. How does a leader deal with that?

Or what if you discover the president was going to murder somebody?

That’s an actual question? What if the president tries to murder somebody?

As far as I know, that’s never happened. But suppose you are on protective detail and this happens. Is it your job to turn him in? Do you talk him out of it? It’s a silly example, but it gets conversation going.

What’s a real-world example of an ethical question Secret Service agents have faced?

One of the interesting moral debates is when the Secret Service agents were subpoenaed in the Clinton case. The biggest debate was whether they should have a confidentiality agreement along the lines of a priest or psychiatrist. If a protectee thinks the agents might tell tales, the protectee will be rather elusive, which would make it harder to protect him or her. When the Clinton case happened, the agency was divided pretty much down the middle. There were those who thought their primary job was protective detail, while others said: “But we’re officers of the court, first.” Ultimately, a few were subpoenaed. I don’t think anyone acted in contempt of the court. They testified, but they were reluctant. The motto of the Secret Service is “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” But whose confidence?

How will the course be different this time? Will you just stand up in front of them and say, “Hey guys, don’t hire hookers”?

Ha! We’ll definitely be tweaking things a little bit this time around. Normally I would use a whole bunch of cases in the two-day course. But this time we’ll think more deeply about Cartagena because it’s on everybody’s mind.

We will be discussing why it happened and how we might discourage it in the future. What I’m going to start doing in this particular class—and I’d really like to expand this out later because I’ve never given it much thought until now—is to think of a strategic approach to ethics rather than a tactical one.

What does that mean?

A tactical approach is what we do normally. When a moral problem comes up, you deal with it. (I’m using “ethical” and “moral” interchangeably here). A lot of organizations don’t worry about an issue until it’s time to worry about it. They have rules, and they assume everyone follows the rules until someone does otherwise.

So then what’s a strategic approach?

It’s sometimes called an ethics audit. You look at how the agency deals with ethics and how it promotes it on a regular basis. One of the things I’d like to see come out of this session is information that we could compile and give back to the director of the Secret Service regarding ways the agency might think strategically by facilitating regular ethics conversations and leveraging their own moral strengths.

Do you think the Secret Service needs that?

It’s not like Johns Hopkins is coming in to save them from themselves. The Secret Service in general has an awful lot of integrity. They take themselves very seriously. They have to.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.