Prostitutes walk near the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia. As many as 21 women were brought back to the hotel by US Secret Service and military personnel in an incident last week involving alleged misconduct with prostitutes.

Secret Service and US military: Why prostitution can end careers

It’s only quite recently that prostitution has been specifically addressed in military law. It also violates the Secret Service code of conduct. That's why last week's scandal in Colombia is damaging careers and ending some while raising questions about human trafficking.

Throughout the history of war and the posting of armies far from home, prostitution has been a common feature. For military commanders, prevention and treatment of sexually-transmitted disease, plus concerns for operational security that might be compromised, have been the main issues.

It’s only quite recently that prostitution itself (and the related issue of adultery) have been specifically addressed in military law and regulation – the reason ten US service members may be in trouble now for their connection to the scandal involving US Secret Service agents and supervisors alleged to have been with prostitutes while on assignment to help protect President Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, last week.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), hiring a prostitute wasn't specifically banned until 2006 – as part of the Bush administration's effort to combat human trafficking, which frequently is connected to prostitution (including the involvement of underage girls).

“Under a change in the Manual for Courts-Martial, troops who patronize prostitutes can receive a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and up to a year in jail,” the Marine Corps Times reported when the change took effect.

The specifics of “prostitution” and “pandering” are spelled out in Article 134 of the UCMJ, as are the circumstances under which such activities are “to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or … of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”

It makes no difference if prostitution is legal – as it is in parts of Colombia, near the largest NATO base in Germany, parts of Nevada, and other areas around the world where thousands of US service personnel are posted – purchasing sex still is outlawed by the US military.

The US service members who were part of the security detail in Colombia and now are under investigation reportedly include five Army Green Berets, two Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers, and an Air Force airman.

Most of the 11 Secret Service agents and supervisors flown back to the United States (placed on administrative leave, their security clearances suspended) reportedly are married – which puts them in a precarious position regarding their employment with the agency.

“By allegedly hiring prostitutes, married Secret Service agents in Colombia violated their top-secret security clearances,” writes Ronald Kessler on the web site Newsmax. Mr. Kessler is the author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.”

“Every agent has such a security clearance,” Kessler wrote this week. “An extra-marital affair if proven can be grounds for revoking a clearance. Without that, no one can be an agent…. Aside from jeopardizing security clearances, engaging prostitutes violates the basic Secret Service code of conduct.”

So far, three of the 11 Secret Service members are being forced out of the agency. One supervisor was allowed to retire, and another was fired for cause (which he will appeal through the agency’s legal system). The third individual, a younger agent, resigned.

David Chaney was the supervisor who was allowed to retire. Supervisor Greg Stokes was "removed with cause" and has the option to appeal the decision within 30 days, according to several reports late Thursday.

Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, says he expects more Secret Service agents to leave before the end of the week.

Meanwhile, as officials sort through the details about what happened in Colombia, the episode raises anew questions about sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

Writes contributing columnist Kirsten Powers in USA Today:

“According to the US State Department, in Colombia, ‘The forced prostitution of women and children from rural areas in urban areas remains a … problem. The State Department notes, ‘Colombia also is a destination for foreign child sex tourists, particularly coastal cities such as Cartagena.’ Indeed, for this reason Colombia is known as the ‘Thailand of Latin America’.”

“Representatives of the US government should be setting the standard for the world, not feeding the problem of sex trafficking,” she writes. “The chances that the women or girls the Secret Service agents procured for their pleasure were there by free will is very low.”

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