Secret Service Agents in Scandal Placed on Leave

Apr 14, 2012

Wall Street Journal -- by Laura Meckler

CARTAGENA, Colombia—The Secret Service put 11 agents on administrative leave Saturday amid allegations they brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms while preparing for a visit by President Barack Obama, a widening scandal that may also involve five military service personnel, officials said Saturday.

Barack Obama is welcomed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and first lady Maria Clemencia de Santos.

The Secret Service agents were caught when one of the women stayed in an agent's room past 7 a.m., in violation of hotel policy, said Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the Secret Service. That agent initially refused to open his door for the hotel manager, which prompted the manager to call the police, who later reported the incident to the U.S. embassy, Mr. King said.

Also Saturday, the United States Southern Command said in a written statement that five U.S. service members assigned to the summit violated curfew and "may have been involved in inappropriate conduct." The statement continued: "The conduct is alleged to have occurred in the same hotel where the recalled United States Secret Service agents were staying."

The military personnel are confined to their quarters in Colombia and under orders not to have contact with other individuals. They will return to the U.S. after the mission is complete, the statement said. An investigation will follow. The Secret Service agents involved in the incident, which occurred Wednesday night, were sent home and replaced by other Secret Service personnel before Mr. Obama arrived on Friday, officials said.

General Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command, said that he is "disappointed by the entire incident and that this behavior is not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."

Secret Service Assistant Director Paul S. Morrissey said in a statement that 11 agents had been put on leave following interviews in Washington about the incident on Saturday. He said the group included both special agents and Uniformed Division officers.

He said the situation had "had no impact on the Secret Service's ability to execute a comprehensive security plan for the President's visit to Cartagena."

"This incident is not reflective of the behavior of our personnel as they travel every day throughout the country and the world performing their duties in a dedicated, professional manner," he added. "We regret any distraction from the Summit of the Americas this situation has caused."

Mr. Obama is attending the weekend Summit of the Americas, a gathering of dozens of regional leaders, as more details emerge about the potential security breach. Mr. Obama is pressing for trade and economic advances while addressing regional grievances against U.S. policies, but the incident is threatening to overshadow the weekend's agenda.

Mr. Obama was notified of the situation on Friday, a spokesman said.

The Secret Service declined to give details of the alleged misconduct. Mr. King, who said he was briefed by the Secret Service, said it appears the Secret Service personnel brought women back to the Hotel Caribe Wednesday night.

He said hotel policy requires that people visiting hotel guests leave identification at the front desk, and depart by 7 a.m. At 7 a.m., hotel personnel noticed one woman had not yet left the hotel, he said.

The hotel manager went to the room, occupied by a Secret Service agent, who would not open the door, Mr. King said. The manager called the police, after which the agent let them in. The woman wouldn't leave, claiming she was owed money by the agent. The agent denied owing her money but paid anyway, Mr. King said. The woman left and the situation was resolved without arrests.

Whenever the police become involved with an incident involving someone from another country, they file a report with the relevant embassy, Mr. King said. At the U.S. embassy, some Secret Service personnel saw the report and began an immediate investigation, he said.

He said the special agent in charge of the Miami field office heard about the incident and began her own investigation.

The director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, decided the agents needed to be brought back to Washington, where they are based, immediately, Mr. King said. Their duties were filled by other agents from Miami and Puerto Rico, who were in place before Mr. Obama arrived, he said, adding, "there was no gap in security."

Mr. King said he was disturbed by the situation because of the potential compromise to the president's security.

"You can't have Secret Service agents compromising themselves or putting themselves in a position where they could be threatened or blackmailed," he said. "That ultimately threatens the safety of the president."

He added that bringing strangers like this into a potentially secure area is "just wrong." In addition, he said, they might have overheard sensitive information. Plus, he noted, the hotel manager had seen the women's identifications.

"The hotel manager can blackmail you for the rest of your life," he said.

Mr. King said he was pleased how Mr. Sullivan, the agency director, handled the situation, and said he has "a lot of faith" in him.

"I'm not going to indict the entire Secret Service because of this," he said. "The question is what you can do to minimize them from happening and how do you take action to make sure it does not happen again and conduct is not being tolerated."

He said none of the 11 agents involved had any prior offenses or irregularities.

He added he plans to have his Homeland Security Committee staff look into the situation.

Ronald Kessler, a Washington-based author who wrote a book about the Secret Service, called it "the biggest scandal in Secret Service history," he said.

Prostitution is generally illegal in Colombia but the country has "tolerance zones" where the activity is essentially ignored by the police. It's not clear if the hotel was in one of those zones.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president has full confidence in the Secret Service and its ability to protect him.

He said none of the 11 agents involved had any prior offenses or irregularities.

He added he plans to have his Homeland Security Committee staff look into the situation.

Ronald Kessler, a Washington-based author who wrote a book about the Secret Service, called it "the biggest scandal in Secret Service history," he said.

Prostitution is generally illegal in Colombia, but the country has "tolerance zones" where the activity is essentially ignored by the police. It's not clear whether the hotel was in one of those zones.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president has full confidence in the Secret Service and its ability to protect him.