Every late night comic, editorial cartoonist and tabloid newspaper is having a field day with allegations that 11 Secret Service agents partied with prostitutes in Colombia last week and bragged that they were there to protect the president. “Secretly Serviced,” blared a headline in the New York Daily News.

But you don’t have to dig too deep to see the serious side of the embarrassing episode in Cartagena, on the eve of the Summit of the Americas. Men assigned to protect the president, his family and many of the nation’s top leaders flouted rules and engaged in misconduct in an agency whose mission requires military-like discipline.

If true, the allegations demonstrate a monumental lack of judgment by agents whose judgment might be needed to save the president’s life. Apparently, Secret Service personnel not only spent the night with prostitutes, but one agent also argued with a prostitute over money, causing such a ruckus that hotel managers got involved. Talk about one idiotic move on top of another.

The mess raises a number of questions about the agency’s culture and leadership, and whether security might be compromised. Among them:

•Was the Cartagena episode an aberration, or is such behavior commonplace among advance-team personnel who just happened to get caught this time? A decade ago, U.S. News & World Report reported on hard partying, heavy drinking and inappropriate sexual encounters within the ranks. Has the culture not changed?

•Is Director Mark Sullivan too lenient and the agency too flabby? While security breaches that become public are rare, in 2009 three uninvited guests managed to crashPresident Obama’s first state dinner. Uniformed agents let them through even though they were not on the guest list. According to author Ron Kessler, who has written a book about the agency, similar violations - from agents’ lax physical fitness to poor proficiency with guns - have been winked at.

•Is the elite protective squad so opaque because of its security mission that it receives insufficient scrutiny? Security requires some level of secrecy, of course, but no government agency should be allowed to run without oversight.

Anyone who would minimize the Colombia episode as “guys being guys” should consider the most serious potential fallout. Not only in spy novels do foreign governments or terrorists try to put people with access to sensitive information in compromising positions.

A married agent, or any agent fearful of losing his job, might easily be blackmailed over a prostitute. Think of the access such agents have to sensitive presidential conversations and to his schedule and habits.

Sullivan has promised a “full and fair” investigation. Good. An unflinching look across the agency by an objective outsider might even be better. As the saying goes, terrorists and assassins have to get it right once; security has to succeed 100% of the time. Which is why the Secret Service is no place for hanky-panky. –USA Today editorial