The director of the United States Secret Services apologized Wednesday for the actions of the agents implicated in the Colombia prostitution scandal last month, and told lawmakers that they didn't know yet of specific plans to protect the president when they met with local women who could have been a security risk.
None of the agents involved in the misconduct were briefed on the specific protection plan for the president, Mark Sullivan said. They hadn't any sensitive security documents, firearms or radios and other security-related equipment in their room. The agents had taken into their rooms women they had met at a local strip club in Cartagena, where Obama was due to arrive in a few days for a summit, and who were working as prostitutes.
Sullivan was speaking at a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Lawmakers conducted the hearing to learn about the ongoing investigation into the incident and how to restore the public's trust and confidence in the agency. They were particularly concerned that because of the lure of sex and effects of alcohol, two common means of entrapment, the men could have been victims of blackmail, coercion or spying by foreign states or drug cartels. They were also worried about whether Obama's safety was ever at risk.
The Cartagena scandal has to be deal with head on, Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman said, noting that the agents are tasked to protect the president and his family.
Nearly 200 Secret Service personnel were in Cartagena when an argument between a prostitute, Dania Suarez, and an agent attracted attention from hotel officials and local law enforcement agents in April. The incident happened shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived for the Summit of the Americas meeting. It made international headlines and overshadowed the trip.
Twelve Secret Service agents, including two supervisors, as well as 12 military personnel were implicated in the April 11 misconduct. The supervisors were among the employees who either lost their jobs or retired. Three were cleared of any serious wrongdoing.
Following the Cartagena scandal allegations surfaced that Secret Service personnel also participated in misconduct in El Salvador in March 2011. However, after days of investigations and dozens of interview, investigators found no evidence supporting that claim.
While conducting interviews into the Cartagena incident, investigators were told of a prostitution scandal involving agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Colombia. Three agents are reportedly now under investigation in this case, which is separate from the Secret Service incident.
Concerns Hiring Prostitutes Is Widespread
Some lawmakers are concerned that the hiring of prostitutes while abroad on official business appears to be widespread and a part of the culture of the agencies involved.
Sen. Susan Collins called the actions of the agents morally repugnant and said she is worried that the misconduct is certainly not an isolated incident.
They willingly made themselves potential targets, Collins said.
The facts suggest to me that this likely was not a one-time incident, she added.
Collins said the agents were not in a single, organized group going for a night on the town. Instead, they all went to different bars and brothels and found themselves in compromising positions.
Reviewing The Secret Service's Response
Homeland Security's Acting Inspector General, Charles Edwards, told lawmakers that there is a three-pronged approach to reviewing how the Secret Service responded to the allegations. His office will first evaluate the adequacy of the agency's response to the Cartagena incident; evaluate the conclusions of its investigation; and look at how sufficient are the existing corrective steps, as well as those planned.
Edwards' office will also interview Sullivan and the agent-in-charge in Cartagena at a later date. The report on the findings of the first phase is scheduled for July 2.
Already, the Secret Service has upgraded its codes of conduct and made some policy changes. Top agency officials have banned foreign nationals excepting hotel staff and law enforcement from all Secret Service hotel rooms. Similarly, the agency's personnel are prohibited from patronizing any establishment that is non-reputable.