WASHINGTON — Expanding the prostitution investigation, the Secret Service acknowledged Thursday it is checking whether its employees hired strippers and prostitutes in advance of President Barack Obama’s visit last year to El Salvador.
The disclosure came not long after the Homeland Security secretary assured skeptical senators that the recent 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 behavior that have emerged in the aftermath of the Colombia incident. The latest, by Seattle television station KIRO-TV (http://bit.ly/IeN6bv), quoted anonymous sources as saying that Secret Service employees received sexual favors from strippers at a club in San Salvador and took prostitutes to their hotel rooms ahead of Obama’s visit to the city in March 2011.
Prostitution is legal in both Colombia and El Salvador.
Separately, The Washington Post this week cited unnamed “confidants” of the Secret Service officers implicated in Colombia saying senior managers had tolerated similar behavior during previous official trips. The Post 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.
Donovan said Thursday, “Any information brought to our attention that can be assessed as credible will be followed up on in an appropriate manner.”
In a confidential message to senators, also Thursday, the Secret Service said its Office of Professional Responsibility had not received complaints about officer behavior in El Salvador but would investigate. In the message, the agency sought to cast doubt on the KIRO report, noting that it does not routinely send K-9 or explosive-detection units as part of its advance teams; KIRO said the advance team included those elements.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he doubted that Obama was aware of the allegations about El Salvador when he was briefed by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan last week in the Oval Office.
The expansion of any investigation into behavior by the Secret Service could represent another mark against an agency that has been tarnished by the prostitution scandal. At a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, senators struggled to reconcile the image of courageous agents assigned to protect the lives of the president and his family with the less savory image that has emerged from its investigation in Colombia so far.
Senators on Thursday questioned Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s statement during the hearing that she believed the incident in Colombia was an isolated case. Napolitano had said there was no evidence of similar behavior, based on a review of complaints during the past 2.5 years to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility. She said that if there was a pattern of such behavior, “that would be a surprise to me.”
“It sort of defies logic,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who serves on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, both of which were investigating the case. “The idea that this is the first and only time, it doesn’t make sense. For something to get this out of control it has to be a … cultural blueprint.”
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said he has heard additional examples of misconduct, so Napolitano’s assurances surprised him. His committee is expected to hold 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.”
The Colombia scandal arose the morning of April 12, when a dispute over payment between a prostitute and a Secret Service officer spilled into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe.
Eight Secret Service officers have been forced out, and the agency is trying to permanently revoke the security clearance of another. 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 Obama later stayed for the Summit of the Americas.
Another dozen military personnel also have been implicated. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that all have had their security clearances suspended.
The Defense Department briefed senators on Wednesday about its investigation, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday he was unsatisfied with what the Pentagon told lawmakers. Unlike for civilian U.S. government employees, soliciting prostitutes is a criminal offense 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 the CBS program “This Morning.”
Graham proposed Thursday that military commanders and Secret Service supervisors should conduct surprise visits for personnel working overseas.
“People get away from home, get deployed and believe they’re on vacation,” he said. “They work hard, but they believe their off-duty time is something that doesn’t matter. It does matter.”