The Secret Service is ready to get beyond an embarrassing international sex scandal, but first it must answer to Congress.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan and Charles K. Edwards, the acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, have been summoned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss agents patronizing prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.
Sullivan plans to present a strong defense of his staff while outlining steps to prevent a recurrence of the scandal. Edwards will discuss plans by his office to monitor and review the Secret Service investigation of its own dirty linen.
In testimony prepared for the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sullivan said U.S. intelligence agencies were asked to determine whether “any type of breach in operational security as a result of the incident” occurred, and none was found.
There were about 200 agency personnel in Cartagena, preparing security in advance of President Obama’s April trip, when a few took prostitutes to their hotel rooms. Nine were found to have been “involved in serious misconduct” and three were cleared of the most serious allegations, Sullivan said.
A foolish few should not sully the agency’s other 7,000 employees.
“I would submit to you,” Sullivan said in his prepared remarks, “that the officers, agents and administrative, professional and technical staff of the Secret Service are among the most dedicated, hardest-working, self-sacrificing employees within the federal government.”
Kind words about agency staffers will not deter hard questions for Sullivan. In a statement prepared for the hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican on the committee, refused to view Cartagena as an aberration.
“The numbers involved, as well as the participation of two senior supervisors, make me believe that this was not a one-time event,” she said. “Rather, the circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture.”
Noting allegations that members of the military and the Drug Enforcement Administration also were involved in Colombian misconduct, Collins added: “And it may well be that it’s a culture that spans agencies.”
Sullivan has formed the Professional Reinforcement Working Group to review the agency’s standards of conduct and to prepare an action plan to reinforce those standards. It will be led by John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and Connie Patrick, director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
To determine what happened in Cartagena, the agency had interviewed more than 220 individuals by May 4. Sullivan said the incident happened the day before a scheduled April 12 security briefing for the agents.
“Thus, at the time the misconduct occurred,” he added, “none of the individuals involved in misconduct had received any specific protective information, sensitive security documents, firearms, radios or other security-related equipment in their hotel rooms.”
Security was not compromised, he said.
But it easily could have been, Collins insisted in her statement.
“The primary means of entrapment — sexual lures and alcohol — were both present here in abundance,” she said. “The agents could easily have been drugged or kidnapped, or had their liaisons with these foreign nationals used to blackmail them, thereby compromising their effectiveness and potentially jeopardizing the president’s security.”
The inspector general’s testimony indicates that his office is more focused on making sure the Secret Service does a good job of investigating itself, rather than conducting an independent inquiry.
“Director Sullivan has repeatedly stated to me his commitment to conduct a complete and thorough investigation,” Edwards said in a statement prepared for the hearing. “His actions so far have demonstrated that commitment. . . . We have high regard for the effort the Secret Service has put forth thus far.”
Edwards said his eight investigators will interview personnel responsible for the agency’s investigation, review records and examine protocols for advance teams.
The agency’s investigation of its own employees “should not be discounted,” Edwards said. “It has done [a] credible job of uncovering the facts and, where appropriate, it has taken swift and decisive action.”
One question Edwards said his staff will address is the same one that Collins and other members of Congress have asked: Is there a culture within the Secret Service that may have allowed this incident to occur?
Another question on his list: Have similar infractions been reported in the past?
On that point, Sullivan said that “no evidence was found to substantiate” allegations of “similar misconduct” in San Salvador in March 2011.
In April, the agency strengthened its code of conduct “to ensure that the type of misconduct that occurred in Cartagena, Colombia, is not repeated,” Sullivan said.
According to the director’s statement, the enhanced code and new policies say:
● “All laws of the United States shall apply to Secret Service personnel while abroad.” (Prostitution is legal in Cartagena.)
● “Foreign nationals, excluding hotel staff and official law enforcement counterparts, are prohibited from all Secret Service personnel hotel rooms.”
● “Patronization of non-reputable establishments is prohibited.”
● “Alcohol may only by consumed in moderate amounts while off-duty on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment and alcohol use is prohibited within 10 hours of reporting for duty.”
● “Alcohol may not be consumed at the protectee hotel once the protective visit has begun.”
Committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Collins asked Sullivan about the agency’s code of conduct and 15 other points in an April 30 letter.
Sullivan emphasized that Cartagena “is not representative of our core values or the high standards we demand.”
Sullivan reminded the committee of one key point no one should forget.
Every day, he said, Secret Service agents “are prepared to lay down their lives to protect others in service to their country.”