WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s safety was not jeopardized by Secret Service agents who consorted with prostitutes in Colombia just before his arrival there for a summit, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured senators Wednesday.
“There was no risk to the president,” Napolitano told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in the first public questioning of an administration official since the scandal broke.
Napolitano said that a review of Secret Service records showed no similar episodes of misconduct that might have warned of brewing problems at the agency. The Office of Professional Responsibility has looked back at two-and-a-half years of complaints and found “there was nothing in the record to suggest that this behavior would happen,” she said.
The Secret Service, which is attached to the Department of Homeland Security, acted swiftly to review all 12 Secret Service employees who were involved in the incident. Eight are now gone, three were cleared of serious misconduct, and one is in the process of having his security clearance revoked - meaning the agent would be prevented from working at the agency.
The Secret Service is interviewing another 50 people who were in the city of Cartegena, Colombia, at the time, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joseph Lieberman said after speaking with Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.
Lieberman said the agency is “doing a very thorough investigation,” which is how it identified a 12th agent involved in the episode last week.
“They are being comprehensive, which is why there’s 50 more people to interview ... I assume it may be other Secret Service personnel who were anywhere in the area at the time, perhaps other people who may have been at the hotels where they were ...,” Lieberman said.
Napolitano’s testimony came as key senators described their Wednesday briefings from Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, and Brigadier General Richard Gross, legal advisor to the Joint Staff, about the involvement of a dozen military personnel in the scandal. None of them have been publicly identified.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that the briefing raised questions about whether the “chain of command” at the Southern Command should have acted sooner to pull out the military personnel involved in the scandal.
Levin said that some military members assigned to the detail were known to have violated curfew before Obama’s arrival, but “the decision was made nonetheless to let those members of the military continue with the mission.”
A Southern Command spokesman said the decision to keep the military personnel on site was made to avoid disruption.
“The military personnel under investigation remained to perform their assigned duties but were otherwise restricted to quarters,” the spokesman said.
Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the briefers provided “appallingly” little information about the incident. But Levin noted that the investigation was ongoing and expected to be completed by the end of next week.
The leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta requesting a briefing about the military investigation and asking questions such as what internal failures contributed to the incident.
In her remarks, Napolitano described the Secret Service incident as unusual in a prestigious agency that during the years reviewed, provided protection to government officials in over 900 foreign and 13,000 domestic trips.
“It really was a huge disappointment to the men and women of the Secret Service to begin with, who uphold very high standards and who feel their own reputations are now besmirched by the actions of a few,” she said.
But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pressed on whether there had been previous incidents.
“The only reason I suggest that we need to maybe look a little harder is because we’re lucky to have found out about this,” he said. “If there hadn’t been an argument between one of the agents and I guess a prostitute, for lack of a better word, about money, we’d probably never have known about this.”
Obama on Tuesday called the Secret Service agents involved in the scandal a “couple of knuckleheads” and had previously said he would be “angry” if the accusations proved true.
Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Vicki Allen, Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara