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A wider scandal Secret Service has to acknowledge long-standing pattern of misbehavior

If the director of the U.S. Secret Service really believes the shameful incident involving hookers and Secret Service personnel in Cartagena, Colombia, is truly an isolated incident, we've got some swamp land in Florida to sell him.

Director Mark Sullivan answered questions during a two-hour hearing Wednesday before a Senate Homeland Security panel regarding gross misconduct by members of the presidential protection force in April, prior to President Obama's arrival for a Latin American summit. The incident came to public attention when one of the Secret Service agents apparently refused to pay a prostitute the negotiated price for her services. Ultimately, 12 employees were investigated and eight were fired.

Senators challenged Sullivan on whether these agents' actions reflect a broader and tacitly accepted pattern of behavior in the Secret Service that includes partying, drunkenness and sexual misconduct among this guardian elite.

Repeatedly, Sullivan said no.

"I'm hoping I can convince you that it isn't a cultural issue," he said.

He didn't convince the senators, and we doubt he convinced anyone. No one in the Secret Service — or any high-profile position — simply wakes up one day after receiving formal training on the honor, burden and responsibilities associated with a job and suddenly decides it's OK to jeopardize the country's national security interests by behaving like a frat boy.

No. That kind of behavior is typically witnessed before it's mimicked cautiously, then repeatedly with greater and greater confidence and openness among peers. That's the arc of human nature in the face of poor oversight and accountability.

Sullivan said what he probably had to say to keep his job. He can't truly be that naive about such a thing. Even if he had not previously and personally fielded complaints about similar misconduct by agents, anyone familiar with the facts of this case could draw some natural conclusions about the extent of the dirt and begin the hard work of scrubbing the floor. According to the Associated Press, Sen. Joseph Lieberman pointed out during the hearing that 64 allegations or complaints of sexual misconduct were made against Secret Service employees in the last five years. Thirty other cases involved alcohol, almost all related to driving under the influence.

This type of behavior does more than taint the image of the Secret Service. It exposes the offenders to potential coercion and blackmail by criminals and enemies of the nation and potentially puts the president's safety at risk.

Since it looks like Sullivan will keep his job, we hope he stops describing the Cartagena incident as a one-time error in judgment and starts putting in place better training and accountability measures to end this ongoing pattern of irresponsibility.