A Brief History of the Secret Service's Drinking Problem

The history of the Secret Service shows that alcohol and keeping the president safe don’t mix.
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Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Secret Service’s latest embarrassment seems like a rejected plot point from a Judd Apatow movie.

The agency is investigating an incident involving two agents who crashed a car into a White House Security barricade after attending a retirement party for a colleague at a nearby bar, theWashington Post reported. The barricade was set up to block off an active bomb investigation, and the agents, who had been drinking, possibly ran over the suspicious package.

By itself, potentially running over a bomb after an alleged night of drinking would raise serious questions, but in recent years the Secret Service has bounced from one alcohol-and-incompetency fueled scandal to the next: prostitutes and partying in El Salvador, prostitutes and partying in Colombia, a drunk agent passed out in the hallway of a hotel in The Netherlands, plus another in Miami, an armed contractor in the elevator, sniper bullets that hit the White House, last fall’s fence jumper, and the downplaying of the fence jumper. Nearly two years ago, a woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police and Secret Service officers during a car chase after she made a U-turn and fled a White House checkpoint. A wrongful death suit has been filed by the family of the woman, Miriam Carey.

Last fall's effort to regain the public’s trust started with the resignation of Julia Pierson, the agency’s director. But this month’s episode brought back the argument that the agency needs an outsider to address its organizational, staffing, budgetary and cultural issues (Pierson’s replacement, Joseph Clancy, is a 27-year veteran of the department).

“I believe we need a leader from the outside to transform the agency back to its elite status,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of House Oversight committee, told the New York Times, adding “It’s never good to be drunk at work, especially if you are in the Secret Service.” Such an outsider would also need to dismantle the agency’s party culture, and its unique ability to discredit its own good work. 

The Secret Service, signed into existence on the last day of President Lincoln’s life, eventually came into being, in part, because the person tasked with protecting Lincoln that day was drinking on the job. When Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in 1865, he had been assigned one guard, Washington cop John Parker. When John Wilkes Booth shot the president, Parker was having a drink in a bar one building over. It was Lincoln’s assassination (along with Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley) that led to the agency being put in charge of the president’s safety in 1901.

Since 1901 the Secret Service has stopped multiple assassination attempts, with one exception. Last October, Vanity Fair’s Susan Cheever looked at the behavior of the agents the night before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and painted a picture of poor management and poor decisions—the men were rarely fed, and, after a day of sparse meals, nine agents went out in search of food. Instead they found “Scotch and Sodas, cigarettes, and a few cans of beer,” and stayed out late, some until 3 a.m.

One of the agents alive in 2014 challenged the idea that drinking played a role in his reaction to the attack, but even at the time Americans were upset by reports of the agents' antics, according to Cheever. “Obviously men who have been drinking until nearly three a.m. are in no condition to be trigger-alert or in the best physical shape to protect anyone,” Drew Pearson wrote in The Washington Post.

Next month is the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, and the country has no doubt come a long way in protecting its presidents. Still, the agency has a long way to go before it once again live up to the its motto: “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.”

This post was updated to clarify the circumstances around Miriam Carey’s death.