WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government agencies that send employees abroad on business have widely varying rules about personal behavior while on assignment and the consequences of violations, a problem that some lawmakers want to fix in response to a scandal this month involving Secret Service agents and Colombia prostitutes.
Reuters asked about half-a-dozen federal agencies whose employees frequently travel overseas whether they had specific rules on engaging with prostitutes or similar behavior.
The responses ranged from the tough language of the State Department, which forbids prostitution or other activities that promote sex trafficking, to the more general language of agencies like the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which caution employees not to bring dishonor to their employer.
Standards of conduct are normally made available to a federal employee at the time of hiring, but vagueness in their language may prove to be an issue only if an employee becomes entangled in a disciplinary or legal case.
The Secret Service declined to release its own internal conduct code to Reuters, saying that the policy is now subject to congressional inquiries.
Republican Representative Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, last week asked the agency to answer a long list of questions about its policies on fraternizing with prostitutes, alcohol and drug use and other issues.
“All Secret Service employees are required to behave in a way personally and professionally that will not jeopardize their security clearance,” said Edwin Donovan, Secret Service spokesman, while declining to release specifics.
Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said “when you’re dealing with security clearances you do need to have better guidelines in terms of what is allowable conduct and what isn’t when you’re in a foreign venue.”
More clarity was needed on interactions with people in other countries in a personal capacity and in areas where employees are permitted to go and who they have to notify, he said.
The agency that has received the most praise in the wake of the Secret Service scandal is the State Department, which lays out specifics about sexual misconduct on the job.
Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said last week, “the State department has guidelines that we would like to see incorporated fully into all of government, we’ll be looking into that.”
The department's Foreign Affairs Manual is posted online here, and the rules prohibit members of the Foreign Service from engaging in "notoriously disgraceful conduct" that includes "frequenting of prostitutes" and "engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations" (3 FAM 4139.14). It forbids engaging in sexual activity that could expose the employee to the "possibility of blackmail, coercion, or improper influence" (3 FAM 4139.1).
A 2008 State Department cable to overseas missions said “people who buy sex acts fuel the demand for sex trafficking” and that “irrespective of whether prostitution is legal in the host country, employees should not in any way abet sex trafficking or solicit people in prostitution.”
Using prostitutes is grounds for disciplinary action, which may include firing, the State Department said. Adultery can also be a disciplinary offense if the spouse is unaware, and it exposes the employee to potential blackmail. Other behavior that can result in disciplinary action includes domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and drug use.
In the military, adultery is prohibited and can be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Defense Department said visiting prostitutes can bring a maximum punishment of one year in prison, dishonorable discharge, and lost pay and benefits.
“A given action (that) might be legal in a particular country or even in a particular U.S. state is an irrelevant consideration - the various constraints and restrictions contained within the UCMJ have global application to all members of the U.S. military at all times,” said a spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale.
The Department of Homeland Security, to which the Secret Service is attached, spells out that employees are prohibited from engaging in any “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, or other conduct prejudicial to the government” as stated in the Code of Federal Regulations (5 CFR 735.203).
The Justice Department’s employee handbook explains “as a government employee, your employment differs from private employment in that your job is to provide service to the public ... For this reason, your conduct is subject to more restrictions and higher standards than may be expected in private industry.”
Intelligence agency employees and contractors are required to comply with standards of conduct that pertain to everyone employed in the executive branch, said Michael Birmingham, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
"There are numerous regulations, policies and procedures including Intelligence Community Directive 704 (online here ) which govern personnel security and security clearance adjudication criteria, and standards of conduct as well as consequences and possible disciplinary actions," he said.
“Intelligence Community employees and contractors whose duties require them to travel overseas, receive a number of tailored briefings and information regarding the travel, and their responsibilities, while representing the U.S. government abroad,” Birmingham said.
Jennifer Youngblood, a Central Intelligence Agency spokeswoman, said: “CIA employees must take - and pass - a polygraph test as part of the process to receive a security clearance, and must regularly undergo reinvestigations to maintain that clearance.
“The CIA takes very seriously any allegations of wrongdoing, and has a variety of administrative, security and, if needed, disciplinary procedures to review these types of issues,” she said.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have focused on gaps in internal policies as an area worth examining as fallout continues from the scandal, which involved about a dozen Secret Service employees, a dozen members of the military and up to 21 prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia.
A major concern has been whether the activities posed a possible security breach.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he suspected the Secret Service code of conduct was “not as clear as it ought to be” for agents who were in Colombia to prepare for a visit by President Barack Obama.
“One of the things they have to do now is really look at their rules, so that they can make them as clear as possible,” he told Reuters. “And I think they should be based on the concept of zero tolerance, period.”
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee said on CNN she was examining possible new legislation that would say “if an act is illegal or criminal in the United States and you engage in it in a foreign land, even if it is legal in that foreign land, it is grounds for immediate termination.”
Senator Susan Collins, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she believes the Secret Service’s code of conduct clearly rules out hiring prostitutes while on business. “So that suggests that it is not being followed,” she said.
“For example, there is specific language that requires the Secret Service personnel to act in a way to bring credit to the United States - which clearly, didn’t come close, in this area,” she told Reuters.
“There is another rule that prohibits drinking on off-duty hours if it’s between assignments where you are going to be on duty. That clearly wasn’t followed,” Collins said.
Some lawmakers said they are not certain that government-wide clarity is needed. Senator Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he was not sure making a detailed list of rules would address the problem.
“So I think they will need to think about what happened, and design a plan to confront it,” he said.
Collins said calls for legislation may be premature. Asked whether prostitution should be explicitly prohibited, she replied: “Boy, I think we are in a sorry state, if we have to explicitly say that you should not engage prostitutes. That is so obvious that it defies belief that it would have to be spelled out.”
Additional Reporting By Andrew Quinn, Missy Ryan and Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson