Pres. Obama arriving in Colombia, flanked by a scandal-free Secret Service agent. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Yesterday, President Obama landed in the seaside Colombian city of Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas to discuss economic and trade policy with other hemisphere leaders. This unsexy-sounding trip has become quite a bit more interesting thanks to a Washington Post story reporting that his advance Secret Service detail had been recalled over a scandal involving local prostitutes. The twelve agents relieved of duty face accusations of misconduct stemming from at least one incident, according to former Washington Post reporter Ronald Kessler (and author of In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the President They Protect). Kessler first passed on this intel to the Post, which broke the story yesterday, and later commented to CNN that it all began when “one of the agents did not pay one of the prostitutes, and she complained to the police.” Or, as former Secret Service agent and current Maryland senatorial candidate Daniel Bongino, who left the agency in May, put it to the Times: “A confrontation ensued, and it didn’t end well.”
The prostitution accusations were also confirmed to the Times by a “government official” and to the Post by the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Edwin Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, chose not to comment on that particularly titillating element. He did, however, acknowledge the issue, and said in a statement that those involved had been referred to the agency’s internal affairs unit:
“The Secret Service takes all allegations of misconduct seriously,” Donovan said. “These personnel changes will not affect the comprehensive security plan that has been prepared in advance of the President’s trip.”
Adler said the entire unit was recalled for purposes of the investigation. The Secret Service “responded appropriately” and is “looking at a very serious allegation,” he said, adding that the agency “needs to properly investigate and fairly ascertain the merits of the allegations.”
While it is not clear if all the agents in question treated themselves to some sexual R&R — prostitution is legal in certain parts of Colombia, though considered “inappropriate” by the Secret Service, per Kessler — others are accused of interfering with the investigation. (The group includes two supervisors.) This is “clearly the biggest scandal in Secret Service history,” said the author, who may be unduly discounting that little 2009 Salahi infiltrationof a White House state dinner. According to Kessler, the nature of the agents’ involvement with the city’s seedier side could have put the president at risk: “This subjected the agents to possible blackmail. Some of them are married. Anything is possible. The prostitutes could have been in league with terrorists or other drug dealers to demand ransoms.”
This particular headline could not have come at a worse time for Obama, who is already expected to face tough criticismfrom the assembled world leaders over his opposition to legalizing marijuana and over Cuba’s continued absence from the summit. Plus, Colombia’s not exactly the safest place in which to pull off a quick security reshuffle. The country’s days of all-out narco warfare may be largely in the past, but just yesterday two blasts rocked Cartagena, though none near the meeting site, while another blast was reported not far from the U.S. Embassy in the capital Bogotá. Either way, the sex scandal marks the third recent incidence of security officers behaving badly: a member of his detail was arrested in Iowa last summer for drunk driving, and — in a more dramatic incident — a State Department agent was charged with second-degree murder for shooting a man in Hawaii. But, according to Bongino, three might not necessarily mean a trend here. He said that, while “misconduct occasionally occurs,” agents’ off-duty lives are generally pretty tame and “focused mainly on working out, eating and sleeping.”
Update: The United States Southern Command has announced that five members of the U.S. military may have also engaged in “inappropriate” behavior at the same hotel as the recalled agents. Speaking to reporters, Jay Carney acknowledged this development, and added that the scandal “had not” been a distraction for Obama. So that makes one person.