WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) They are screened so carefully that their families are interviewed before they are hired. They hold top-secret security clearances, are trained to use lethal force and stand inches from the leader of the world's most powerful nation.
U.S. Secret Service agents are also drilled almost from day one on the need for probity, discretion and solid morals.
"You will be exposed to so many new experiences, challenges and, yes, temptations - a Secret Service agent can sometimes be perceived as celebrity. We are not," a top official warned a 2002 graduating class of agents.
The self-image of the Secret Service's proud, but insular, culture has been challenged like at no time in modern history by allegations that agents took prostitutes back to their hotel rooms in Cartagena, Colombia, last week on the eve of President Barack Obama's arrival for a hemispheric summit.
Six employees, including two supervisors, have either resigned, retired, or been proposed for firing. On Friday, the Secret Service said a 12th employee had been implicated, placed on administrative leave and stripped of his security clearance.
The question now is whether what happened in Cartagena was an isolated incident, the actions of agents who failed the Service's high standards - or something more systemic in a 146-year-old agency first founded to combat counterfeiting.
Former top Secret Service officials, and the agency's many defenders, insist that the scandal is both unprecedented and no reflection of the Secret Service as a whole.
The Colombia incident was an anomaly, Basham said. "The sheer number of people who decided to engage in this, that's what is shocking."
The Service's defenders are quick to point out that the employees under investigation were not members of the presidential protective detail. And yet, two of them were not rank-and-file employees, but supervisors.
David Chaney, a Secret Service supervisor who was allowed to retire over the incident, posted photos of himself protecting former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on his personal Facebook page. He included this comment: "I was really checking her out, if you know what I mean?"
"That really bothered me. And I'm no moralist. But ... when it's your job to be protecting someone, especially when that person is a female, to be making those types of remarks and be posting them, is absolutely indefensible," Representative Pete Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN.