Pentagon suspends security clearances over Colombia scandal

BOGOTA Mon Apr 23, 2012 12:40pm EDT

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BOGOTA (Reuters) - The Pentagon has suspended security clearances of military personnel implicated in the Colombia prostitution scandal, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday.

U.S. Secret Service and military personnel allegedly took as many as 21 women back to their beachfront hotel on the night of April 11-12, ahead of President Barack Obama's trip to the seaside city of Cartagena to attend the Summit of the Americas.

They were discovered when one woman complained about money, leading to the involvement of the local police.

"We have suspended the security clearances of individuals there, pending results of this investigation," Panetta told reporters traveling with him on his flight to Colombia.

"Frankly, my biggest concern is the issue of security and what could possibly have been jeopardized by virtue of this kind of behavior."

Eleven U.S. military personnel have been implicated in the scandal so far, along with 12 Secret Service agents. Within the military, six of them are from the U.S. Army, two from the Marines, two from the Navy and one from the Air Force.

It was not clear how many of those military personnel had security clearances, however. None of them have been charged with any crime at this point.

"Those who had security clearances, those have been suspended," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

Six Secret Service agents have already left the service in the wake of the scandal.

Hiring prostitutes, no matter the legal status where the act takes place, is prohibited for U.S. military personnel. Those convicted under the military justice system can be imprisoned for up to a year and be discharged dishonorably.

Prostitution is legal in "tolerance zones" in Colombia.

The incident embarrassed the United States and overshadowed Obama's participation in the summit. It may be the worst scandal in modern times for the Secret Service, tasked with protecting the U.S. president and other senior officials.

It was also a black eye for the military.

"We expect our people wherever they are to abide by the highest standards of conduct," Panetta said.

Panetta was due to visit a remote military base in Colombia and meet President Juan Manuel Santos in the capital, Bogota. He said he would provide an update on the investigation, if asked. Panetta was not scheduled to visit the city of Cartagena, where the incident took place.

"I will obviously, if asked by the people (in Colombia), I'll give them an update on the investigation. But at this point, I'm still awaiting the results of that investigation," Panetta said.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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