The Cable

Feds Gone Wild: Why Federal Agents Act Badly

Federal agents are caught up in a string of scandals. Experts say their boys-will-be-boys culture is the reason why.

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Federal agents are behaving badly. And there are multiple reasons why.

Defenders of these agents chalk up the institutional problems within the DEA and Secret Service to a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. But according to experts, the kind of boys-will-be-boys behavior brought to light by recent scandals reveals deep-seated issues within federal law enforcement. They say poor management, lack of consequences for bad acts, and failures of bureaucracy all contribute to what amounts to institutional rot among some federal security services.

DEA agents recently got busted partying with prostitutes paid for by drug cartels. A high-ranking Secret Service agent reportedly hit on a subordinate at a party celebrating his promotion in March. Earlier that month, two agents hit a barrier outside the White House after a night of drinking, an incident that took place during a botched response to a suspicious package.

Leaders of both the DEA and the Secret Service would like to pass the embarrassments off as a bad stretch. But according to Congress and numerous official reports, problems within the Secret Service, from drinking to philandering, date back decades, and are potentially dangerous. Two times in the last year people have penetrated White House barriers, and DEA agents have been colluding with drug cartels since 2001.

“Nothing happens” when agents act badly, Michael Levine, a former DEA agent, told Foreign Policy. “It’s beyond belief how the agents in the field run amok.”

Levine blames problems at the DEA and Secret Service on poor leadership. He said higher-ups are appointed on the basis of their political connections, not their ability to properly manage agents while instituting long-needed reforms.

This is the same problem a 2014 Homeland Security report found with the Secret Service. It recommended the agency bring in an outsider to change the culture within the service charged with protecting the first family. President Barack Obama did the opposite when he recently named longtime service veteran Joseph Clancy head of the agency. Clancy has been under fire in Congress ever since.

Ronald Kessler, an author who has written extensively about the Secret Service, says the insider culture promoted by leadership leads to problems within the rank and file, who believe their bad acts will be shielded by one of their own. He pointed to the FBI, an agency whose last two directors — Robert Mueller and James Comey — never served as agents, as an example of how outside leadership can create a culture of accountability.

Craig Reinarman, a professor of sociology and legal studies the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the nature of federal agents’ jobs also contributes to bad behavior. He said they live in a world where their lives are constantly on the line. Some agents believe this constant danger in their professional lives gives them license to act badly in their personal lives.

“It brings out this ‘My stick is bigger than your stick’ mentality in the way they interact with others,” Reinarman told FP.

He likened this mentality to that of police officers implicated in a recent rash of shootings of unarmed black men.

“Social scientists that have known for 50 years the perverse dance of masculinity that goes on with law enforcement officers,” he said. “You get people needing to do a performance of toughness.”

“There’s no way you turn off that spigot,” Reinarman added.

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