Amid Scandal, A Look At Secret Service 'Survey Teams'

The Secret Service is under fire after agents were suspended for hiring prostitutes in Colombia last week. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa says the Secret Service must have had similar scandals before but hushed them up. Others see the Cartagena incident as another example of the Obama administration failing at administration.

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The Secret Service is investigating an incident that unfolded over the weekend. About a dozen agents were doing advance work in South America before President Obama arrived in Colombia, but they were sent home. And now the service is investigating allegations that they had hired prostitutes.

As that inquiry gets going, we asked NPR's Ari Shapiro for a little background on what advance teams are supposed to do before the president arrives in a foreign country.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Months before a foreign trip, a survey team goes to the country. There are Secret Service agents, White House officials, even an Air Force One pilot, says Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of the book "Standing Next to History."

JEFFREY ROBINSON: Air Force One will never land with the president at an airport where they have never landed before. So his pilot, if they're going to a place they've never been before, his pilot actually flies down there with the plane and practices landings and takeoffs, so that he knows the landing field.

SHAPIRO: About 10 days before the trip, a dozen agents will return to the country - that's the advance team. They walk through every detail of the visit, says former agent Larry Rowlett, who now runs Presidential Risk Analysis.

LARRY ROWLETT: Everything from the lights on the highways and the streets to the manhole covers to, you know, what time to open the event, what time you set up the magnetometers at an event.

SHAPIRO: They drive motorcade routes and review terrorism threat reports. While some of that happens ahead of domestic trips, going abroad makes everything more complicated. Rowlett says in the U.S., security is pretty cookie-cutter.

ROWLETT: New York's police department and L.A.'s police department aren't a whole lot different. But you take a police department in Lagos, Nigeria and one in the Bahamas, and you got two huge different types of security components.

SHAPIRO: There are language and cultural barriers and sometimes outright clashes with the host country.

Joe LaSorsa runs a private security firm after more than 20 years in the Secret Service, and he remembers a run-in before First Lady Nancy Reagan visited Rome.

JOE LASORSA: The Italian authorities specifically told us that we couldn't have our agents bring in any weapons.

SHAPIRO: So what did you do?

LASORSA: I just told them, I said that wasn't going to work out. I mean, our agents were going to come off the plane with our weapons and we were not going to be stopped. And they said, well, we're going to have to prevent that from happening. Then I told them, I said, well, then you're going to have to risk an international incident.

SHAPIRO: The Italians backed down.

Sometimes the most authoritarian countries are the easiest to operate in, because the government can control everything. LaSorsa found that to be true in the Soviet Union when President Reagan visited Moscow in the '80s.

LASORSA: The response from the KGB was that we didn't have to worry about the crowds of people, because there would be no crowds of people.

SHAPIRO: Occasionally a country is so dangerous that the Secret Service advises the president not to take a trip. The president can ignore that recommendation, which is what President George W. Bush did on a trip to Iraq.

Ralph Basham was Secret Service director at the time and is now with Command Consulting Group.

RALPH BASHAM: You know, I remember going to Baghdad on Thanksgiving. And, you know, that was not something that I was particularly fond of doing. But the president made the decision. And once he makes the decision, then we sent our folks over there and put it together.

SHAPIRO: The director almost always goes on foreign trips, showing just how high-stakes they are.

The Secret Service hopes to control every detail. Author Jeffrey Robinson says that even extends to banquets at Buckingham Palace.

ROBINSON: The president would eat exactly what the Queen of England ate, except that the Secret Service would prepare it, and the Secret Service would buy the ingredients.

SHAPIRO: It looked exactly the same. No one would guess that the chefs at Buckingham Palace had never touched the food that passed the president's lips.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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