The advance team had developed a plan, and it would be up to the car-plane guys to implement it once Air Force One touched down.
So, for a day or two, the men had ample downtime — amid a handful of planning meetings and rehearsal walk-throughs — to eat at restaurants, hit the hotel gym and explore the Cartagena night life.
“That may be one reason these guys felt they were not on duty until the president arrived,” said a retired agent who has been heavily involved in Secret Service training over the years. “They just didn’t have anything to do.”
On the night of April 11, at least some of the men spent time at the Pleyclub, a strip club where they paid for the services of at least two women, according to people in Cartagena who are familiar with details of the evening. They took the women back to the Hotel Caribe, where the advance team was staying. All 21 Secret Service and military personnel are suspected of having had women in their rooms that night. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Colombia, but agency rules prohibit employees from engaging in immoral conduct.
The following morning, however, one of the agents got into a dispute with one of the women over payment, drawing the attention of the hotel staff and Colombian police, who reported the incident to the U.S. Embassy.
Current and former Secret Service personnel said in interviews that they were angered by the damage the scandal has done to the agency’s reputation and the embarrassment it has caused the Obama administration.
At the same time, they lamented the prospect of losing the experience of the two supervisors in an election year and the strain such a loss will put on the agency. The Secret Service has a $1.5 billion budget, 3,500 agents and 1,400 uniformed officers.
Last fiscal year, agents shadowed high-level U.S. officials on more than 5,600 domestic and nearly 400 international trips. This year is expected to be even busier with the presidential campaign in full swing.
“I’m just shocked this happened. We were instructed never to party — even on our own time,” said Bill Holland, who worked as a uniformed division officer during the Nixon administration. But he acknowledged that the agency’s assignments have become far more demanding over the years, requiring uniformed service officers to travel and do advance work far more often than in the past.
Obama’s relentless travel schedule during the election season contributes to that, he said, and can lead staff members to feel the need to “blow off steam.”
“The more the president travels, the more the pressure builds,” Holland said. “They live under a lot of pressure every day. He is a traveling president. He is on the road all the time. Is it an excuse? No. No way.”
Staff writer Ed O’Keefe and staff researchers Alice Crites and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.