3 Secret Service members to leave agency amid scandal
WASHINGTON (CNN) – Three U.S. Secret Service members have left or are being pushed out of the agency following a prostitution scandal that erupted in Colombia ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama, the agency said in a statement Wednesday.
The agency reported that one supervisory employee was allowed to retire, another supervisory employee was proposed to be removed “for cause,” while a third has resigned.
A separate review board is expected to be created in the coming days to examine to Secret Service practices to determine whether the recent controversy remains an isolated incident or is instead emblematic of a broader agency culture, a source said.
The remaining eight members allegedly involved in the scandal remain on administrative leave, with their security clearances suspended, as the investigation into their alleged misconduct remains ongoing.
As many as 10 U.S. military personnel from all branches of the armed forces are also being questioned about potential misconduct, including five members of America’s elite Army Special Forces.
The alleged prostitutes, the youngest of whom were in their early 20s, had all signed in at Cartagena’s Hotel El Caribe where the Secret Service members had apparently stayed, flashing their local ID cards. But one of the women, the source said, was involved in a dispute about how much she was allegedly to be paid for night.
That dispute brought the incident to light and controversy has since swirled in both countries.
Days after the Secret Service personnel were placed on administrative leave, investigators are now also looking into whether drugs were involved, according to a separate source with knowledge of the probe.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan has told subordinates to use “all tools available” to conduct the investigation, and has made it known that he believes drug testing is within his rights, the source said.
It is not clear if any of those accused have been tested, and authorities say drug use is not consistent with their findings so far, though they are continuing to investigate the allegations alongside local police.
Meanwhile, Senate lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on the controversy for 10 a.m. ET next Wednesday, inviting Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to testify.
At least one congressman, Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, has called for Sullivan to be replaced.
“There’s only so many strikes you get, in baseball it’s three,” said Forbes, a senior member of the House Armed Serves Committee, referencing a prior security breach when a Virginia couple crashed President Barack Obama’s first White House state dinner in 2009 as well as apparent agency overspending in that same year.
“I think he’s had three,” Forbes added. “I think it’s time to put somebody else in there to make sure we’re getting a different culture in the Secret Service.”
Sullivan has directed the Secret Service since May 2006. He has been with the agency since 1983.
At the time of the incident in Colombia, the Secret Service members apparently had not yet received classified documents detailing the planned movements of the president, who was coming to Cartagena for last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, the source noted. In addition, the source said, all weapons apparently were in a secure location.
Obama has said he expects a “rigorous” investigation of the incident.
In Colombia, fallout from the incident led an official to say it has overshadowed his country’s showcase of the city of Cartagena during the summit.
Nausicrate Perez, a municipal official in Cartagena, said authorities were waiting to get more information on the allegations regarding the agents.
Lauding the Secret Service director for taking “immediate and decisive action,” Secretary Napolitano said the probe reflects the “professionalism, honor, and integrity” of the service.
“The U.S. Secret Service has a history of executing its mission with professionalism, honor and integrity and Director Sullivan’s six-year stewardship of the agency has been marked by these traits,” she said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, issued a statement saying, “I believe that Director Sullivan is taking serious action to investigate the incident, and will be staying in close contact with him in the days and weeks ahead.”
A leading Republican senator earlier said that she had been told as many as 21 women had been involved and questioned.
“Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons or in any other (ways) jeopardized security of the president or our country?” asked Maine’s Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
That account was disputed by U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan, who said the exact number of women was still under investigation.
“Sen. Susan Collins, in a conversation with the Secret Service, was told that 21 U.S. personnel are involved in the investigation, and she evidently misconstrued that to mean that 21 prostitutes were involved,” a source familiar with the investigation said.
Collins’ office disagreed with that account, saying, “There was no misunderstanding.”
“What is incredible to me is that Secret Service personnel or military troop members would bring unknown foreign nationals back to their hotel rooms without knowing anything about them,” Collins told CNN. “That poses great risks to the agents and to the service members themselves, but it also raises the questions of a serious breach of security.”
The Secret Service agents and officers being investigated range in experience from relative newcomers to nearly 20-year veterans, and all have been interviewed at least once, two government officials with knowledge of the investigation said Monday.
Their security clearances have been pulled while the investigation is under way and could be reinstated if they are cleared, the officials said.
Each agent was offered an opportunity to take a polygraph test, according to a U.S. official. Some of the agents and military personnel maintain that they didn’t know the women were prostitutes, the official said.
“Even if they weren’t (prostitutes), it was totally wrong to take a foreign national back to a hotel when the president is about to arrive,” Rep. Peter King, R-New York, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said the agents should take the polygraph tests.
“For these individuals, if they want to have any career at all, they have to decide on telling the entire truth and seeing whether they have something going forward.”
Issa said his level of confidence in Sullivan is “high.”
While soliciting prostitution is in most cases legal for adults in Colombia, it is considered a breach of the Secret Service’s conduct code, the government sources said. Military law also bars service members from patronizing prostitutes, engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer or, for enlisted personnel, conduct “prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
The military personnel involved were sent to Colombia to support the Secret Service. A military official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation told CNN that two of those being questioned are Marines who handle military working dogs. Air Force and Navy personnel, some of whom are believed to be explosive disposal experts, also are being questioned, the official said.
The alleged misconduct occurred before Obama arrived in Cartagena, and the Secret Service said the personnel involved were relieved of duty and sent home before the president landed. But the news broke while he was there, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon on Monday that the incident distracted attention “from what was a very important regional engagement for our president.”
CNN’s National Security Contributor Fran Townsend, Juan Carlos Lopez, Dana Bash, Bob Kovach, John King, Barbara Starr, Jessica Yellin, Deirdre Walsh, Ted Barrett and journalist Fernando Ramos contributed to this report.