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Keeping Staff Problems In Perspective

Anyone familiar with history knows the perils of taking too literally—or perhaps at all—Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, but recent news about problems with U.S. Secret Service agents offers a lesson in the more mundane pitfalls of thinking there is any such thing as an Übermensch.

As Fox News reported in mid June, a 229-page log of Secret Service agent misconduct allegations released by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general included reports of “sexual assault, illegal wiretaps, improper use of weapons and drunken behavior.”

This litany of alleged crimes and misdemeanors is at first shocking but it needs perspective. It covers a period since 2003 and a work force of roughly 7,000 employees. It refers to hotline calls not yet investigated. Some level of misconduct will ultimately be confirmed. What will it prove? I’d suggest, without excusing any behaviors that are ultimately proven, that it shows the extent to which errant behaviors exist in any random work force. What matters is how quickly security catches them.

But weren’t these guys supposed to be special? Maybe, but we all remain human. No one is superhuman. And every work force will have to deal with that. The Navy’s growing problem with commanding officers having to be relieved of duty for misconduct was a topic of a recent Kojo Nnamdi radio program. But as Vice Admiral Peter Daly (retired) pointed out on the program, those firings represent only about 1 percent of all Navy officers. The key is “that there’s accountability...[and that] you take those lessons and apply them to the others and make the fix that you need to make,” he said.

It is folly to think that within any large pool of employees, some won’t succumb to temptations. No matter how elite and well trained the work force, some staff will err. With that as the premise, two important corollaries follow. The first, which security professionals know well, is that employers must have strong internal controls designed to deter bad actions when possible, and failing that, to catch those who are not deterred. Second, we must all resist the temptation to extrapolate too much from individual bad behaviors.

Another similar story in the news this summer was that the Transportation Security Administration fired eight Air Marshals for drinking on the job. Such revelations about some workers’ problems don’t mean that the entire barrel is rotten. In fact, the revelations may just mean the detection and enforcement systems are working.

Shining a light on problems isn’t a bad thing, so long as it doesn’t blind people to the larger unlit areas of the institution that are functioning well. Let’s keep that in mind in these and future “scandals.” Meanwhile, let’s allow those charged with investigations to properly assess who erred—including whether management took its hand too much off the rudder—and what the appropriate consequences should be.