So far at least, the episode involving US Secret Service agents and prostitutes at a summit meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, seems to be no more than an embarrassment for an organization whose image is buttoned-down and highly professional, filled with stern-looking men willing to “take a bullet” for the president and other high-ranking officials.
While details remain sketchy, agency and White House officials insist that no security breaches occurred nor has the situation interfered with President Obama’s work at the 33-nation Summit of the Americas conference.
“Our focus here and the president’s focus continues to be on the meetings he’s having,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters covering the meeting. "The president does have full confidence in the United States Secret Service.”
Still, more details have emerged, including the apparent involvement in inappropriate behavior of several US military members, five of whom have been confined to quarters in Colombia.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said he was "disappointed by the entire incident" and said the behavior was "not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."
What’s known at this point is that 11 Secret Service agents (including two supervisors), part of an advance team (not the president’s security detail), were placed on administrative leave and flown back to the United States on Friday, before President Obama arrived the same day.
“The nature of the allegations, coupled with a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct, resulted in the Secret Service taking the decisive action to relieve these individuals of their assignment,” Secret Service Assistant Director Paul Morrissey said in a statement. “The personnel involved were brought to Secret Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C., for interviews [Saturday]. These interviews have been completed.”
While Secret Service and Southern Command officials have yet to talk about what transpired, US Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said most of the 11 agents had brought women “presumed to be prostitutes” to their hotel rooms.
Rep. King said he will instruct his staff to do an investigation “to see if this is symptomatic of the Secret Service,” Politico reported.
“I don’t believe it is,” King said. “I have great regard for them. [Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan] moved very quickly on this, very quickly, very effectively.”
But, he added, “it definitely could have compromised the security of the president” by opening the agents to threats of blackmail.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter and author of the book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,” called the incident “the biggest scandal in Secret Service history.”
“It is all part of this pattern that I wrote about in the book of corner cutting, laxness, cover up,” Kessler said in an interview with Politico.
King said: “If this is the worst [scandal] they have, this is a pretty good agency.”
Prostitution is legal in parts of Colombia, but not condoned by the Secret Service or the US military. In this case, according to several reports, a dispute arose over payment to one woman. This got hotel and local police officials involved, which then resulted in a report to the US Embassy.
In this case, a senior US official told the New York Times, “There are people who willingly went to prostitutes and other people who ended up with prostitutes.”
“Either way, it’s just unacceptable,” the official said.