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U.S. Secret Service's unassuming chief now in spotlight

U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told lawmakers last month that he expected a challenging year in 2012, with a major international summit in Chicago to secure, not to mention the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told lawmakers last month that he expected a challenging year in 2012, with a major international summit in Chicago to secure, not to mention the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions.

Little did he know.

Sullivan, a 29-year veteran of the Secret Service, now leads an agency caught up in perhaps its worst scandal in modern times, as investigators probe allegations that agents brought prostitutes to a Colombia hotel, virtually on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit.

Sullivan's job does not appear in immediate jeopardy - there were widespread expressions of support on Tuesday, including the one that matters most, from Obama's White House.

But lawmakers are demanding answers.

"It's outrageous. The whole thing is outrageous. They are there to protect the president of the United States, not to be on a junket and have a good time," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. "I would fire anybody in my office who did anything similar to this, and I want to see what's going to happen."

Leahy, who has demanded a briefing on the alleged misconduct, said of Sullivan: "I'm not taking any position on him until I hear what is going on, who's allowed it, and who's taking responsibility."

Obama, via his spokesman, issued a statement of support for Sullivan and the White House enlisted surrogates to make its case.

While critics - most notably author and journalist Ronald Kessler - called for Sullivan's head, others emphasized that he apparently took aggressive action and ordered a rapid investigation into the events in Colombia.

"In the aftermath of allegations of personnel misconduct in Colombia, Director Sullivan took immediate and decisive action to remove the agents involved, investigate what transpired and ensure the Secret Service continued performing their vital protection mission," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "I have the highest confidence in the director's leadership."

The Secret Service is part of the Homeland Security department, having been moved from the Treasury in 2003.

Sullivan, who has held the post for nearly six years, is described by those who know him as polite, hard-working and loyal, having forsaken a lucrative private-sector career for government service.

The website of his college, Saint Anselm in Manchester, New Hampshire, says he also had a life-long interest in presidential protection, the Secret Service's No. 1 mission.

Sullivan, a 1977 graduate, was "glued" to the news of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, according to a short profile on the website. On election eve 41 years later, he and two other Saint Anselm alumni were on protective detail at the home of the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, it said.

Dave Wilkinson, a retired Secret Service agent who moved up through the agency's ranks with Sullivan and served with him on details protecting Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said any perception that the scandal is due to Sullivan's leadership is "completely unfair."

"It's not like there is a culture that has been created where these agents thought that this was OK," Wilkinson said. "In all my years, I've never heard anything like it."


He described Sullivan as hard-working - emails from the office late at night were not uncommon - but not a dictatorial boss.

"What I learned from Mark was he was able to manage and lead without having to be a tyrant," Wilkinson said. "One of the things I struggled with as a supervisor sometimes is being a little bit rough with the message and then realizing I probably could have said that in a politer way."

Even so, Sullivan's tenure has not been without controversy.

In late 2009, he was forced to apologize before Congress after a socialite couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, talked their way into a White House state dinner although they were not on the guest list.

"This is our fault and our fault alone," Sullivan told a packed hearing room.

But like a good soldier, Sullivan was forced to take the fall alone. The Salahis refused to appear and the committee's Democratic chairman quashed a subpoena for the White House social secretary to appear to explain her role.

More recently, reports by the Government Accountability Office and Homeland Security's Inspector General rapped the Secret Service for overspending by $5.1 million on presidential candidate protection in Fiscal year 2009 and failing to notify Congress in time.

For now, at least, most lawmakers seem ready to give Sullivan the benefit of the doubt, and it is unclear whether congressional hearings will be held on the matter.

Congressman Peter King, Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he backs Sullivan.

The panel's ranking Democrat, Representative Bennie Thompson, described Sullivan as "forthcoming" about the alleged events in Colombia when they spoke by phone on Sunday afternoon.

"We basically just talked about this situation there. But the more you have time to reflect on the situation, the more questions tend to come up," Thompson said.

"In this instance, he was forthcoming with his responses, to get to the bottom of it, and the question is, OK, what have you learned since your review of this situation?

Asked if he supported Sullivan, Thompson said: "I am going to let the facts determine my support."