WASHINGTON — The Secret Service acknowledged Thursday it is investigating whether its employees hired strippers and prostitutes in advance of President Barack Obama’s visit last year to El Salvador. The disclosure came hours after the Homeland Security secretary assured skeptical senators that a separate prostitution scandal in Colombia appeared to be an isolated incident.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, Edwin Donovan, said the agency was investigating allegations raised in news reports about unprofessional behaviour that have emerged in the aftermath of the prostitution scandal in Colombia. The latest, by Seattle television station KIRO-TV (http://bit.ly/IeN6bv), quoted anonymous sources as saying that Secret Service employees received sexual favours from strippers at a club in San Salvador and took prostitutes to their hotel rooms ahead of Obama’s visit there in March 2011.
Prostitution is legal in both Colombia and El Salvador.
Separately, The Washington Post earlier this week cited unnamed “confidants” of the Secret Service officers implicated in the Colombia scandal saying senior managers tolerated similar behaviour during official trips. It described a visit to Buenos Aires in 2009 by former President Bill Clinton, whose protective detail it said included agents and uniformed officers. During that trip, the Post said, members of the detail went out for a late night of partying at strip clubs.
“Any information brought to our attention that can be assessed as credible will be followed up on in an appropriate manner,” Donovan said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he doubted that President Barack Obama was aware of the allegations from El Salvador when he was briefed by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan last week in the Oval Office.
“I don’t know that … any of us were aware of it until we … read newspaper reports,” Carney said.
Secret Service investigators told an oversight committee Thursday that the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility had not received complaints about officer behaviour in El Salvador, but would investigate, according to an official briefed on the information.
The expansion of any investigation into immoral behaviour by the Secret Service represents another mark against an agency that has been tarnished by the prostitution scandal. At an oversight hearing Wednesday in Congress, senators struggled to reconcile the image of courageous agents assigned to protect the lives of the president and his family with the image of a fraternity atmosphere that has emerged from its investigation in Colombia so far.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on both the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, said Thursday the misconduct could be fixed if military commanders and Secret Service supervisors would fly in from their headquarters for surprise inspections to a deployed unit.
“People get away from home, get deployed and believe they’re on vacation,” the Republican said. “They work hard but they believe their off duty time is something that doesn’t matter. It does matter.”
Graham also was critical of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comments before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
During an oversight hearing, she said there was no evidence of similar behaviour based on a review of complaints the past 2.5 years. .
“It sort of defines logic. The idea that this is the first and only time, it doesn’t make sense,” Graham said. “For something to get this out of control it has to be a … cultural blueprint.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said he didn’t know whether Napolitano was misinformed, but said he keeps hearing of additional examples of misconduct. His committee is conducting an investigation, with the possibility of hearings in May.
“I keep running into people who tell me that they’ve talked to agents who tell them about misconduct of this kind over the years,” Lieberman said. “Whether anybody knew about it or whether there were files on people I don’t know.”
He said the committee is investigating the “broader questions of whether this was a pattern of behaviour over the years, whether they…at the higher levels of the agency, should have seen it and prevented it.”
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said Napolitano is “anything but naive.”
“I think she was dealing with all the information she had,” he said.
Leahy praised the Secret Service as “wise, very professional men and women” and called it shocking that so many of the agency’s employees were implicated in Colombia.
At the oversight hearing, Napolitano said that if there was a pattern of such behaviour, “that would be a surprise to me.”
The Colombia scandal erupted the morning of April 12, when a fight over payment between a prostitute and a Secret Service officer spilled into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe.
Eight of the Secret Service officers have been forced out, and the agency is trying to permanently revoke the security clearance of one. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing but face administrative discipline. One of the Secret Service officers was staying at the Hilton hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, the same hotel where President Barack Obama later stayed for the Summit of the Americas.
Another dozen military personnel also were implicated. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that all have had their security clearances suspended.
The Defence Department briefed senators on Wednesday about its investigation, but Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Thursday he was unsatisfied with what the Pentagon told lawmakers. Unlike for civilian U.S. government employees, soliciting prostitutes is a criminal offence for U.S. military personnel even in countries where prostitution is otherwise legal.
“Secretary Napolitano and especially the director of the Secret Service has been pretty forthcoming in many aspects of this, unlike the Pentagon, which has completely stonewalled, using the excuse that a Uniform Code of Military Justice — as you know, that’s the military law — somehow is a barrier to us receiving information,” McCain said Thursday on the CBS program “This Morning.”
Associated Press writers Larry Margasak, Jim Kuhnhenn, and Ben Feller contributed to this report.
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