After Secret Service agents were alleged to have solicited prostitutes while on a presidential visit to Colombia last year, questions arose as to whether officials had followed proper procedures when they investigated nearly a dozen of their own members in one of the most embarrassing incidents in the history of the storied agency.
The answer is yes, according to an official report set to be released next week by the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General. Secret Service leaders “responded expeditiously and thoroughly to the allegations” that some men had brought women, including prostitutes, back to their hotel rooms, and that one agent had refused to pay for sexual services.
But the 20-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washingtonian, does not address lingering questions about whether hiring prostitutes is “widespread” within the Secret Service. For months since the Colombia affair was revealed, current and former employees have said that hiring women for sex is a common occurrence on foreign trips, and something that is implicitly, if not officially, condoned. They have said the practice is not limited to single men, and that “Wheels up, rings off” is a common refrain on overseas missions.
The Secret Service Director, Mark Sullivan, has testified to Congress that hiring prostitutes is not a common practice, and he and has characterized the behavior of the employees in Colombia as aberrant and not in keeping with the agency’s traditions or standards.
The report noted that prostitution is not illegal in Cartagena, and that “prostitution is not specifically addressed in [Secret Service] standards of conduct…” However, the report added, “[Secret Service] officials asserted that solicitation of prostitutes violated standards, which state that ‘employees shall not engage in criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral or notoriously disgraceful conduct or other conduct prejudicial to the [United States] government.’”
At least one establishment that Secret Service personnel visited was considered to be a “reputable” establishment, the report found. It also noted that the agency acknowledged investigating allegations of solicitation on another trip, in El Salvador. That suggests that Secret Service leaders are aware that the events in Colombia were not unique.
In the latest report, the IG limited his findings solely to the integrity of the Secret Service’s investigation, which began on April 12, 2012, the morning that agency managers were alerted that one of their agents had refused to pay a prostitute he met the night before at a nightclub in Cartagena. President Obama was on his way to attend the Summit of the Americas. Owing to his imminent arrival, the IG determined that Secret Service managers followed proper procedures when they relieved eleven employees implicated in the events of their duties, sent them out of the country, and suspended their security clearances, which effectively disqualified them from any sensitive work, including protecting the President.
The report also found that the Secret Service determined the security of President Obama was not jeopardized when the men brought foreign nationals back to their hotel rooms, and that no sensitive information was in danger of being discovered. The Secret Service employees had not been briefed on the details of the security plan for the President’s visit, and consequently possessed no information that could have put him in danger, the report found.
The report passes no judgement as to whether the punishment meted out against the employees involved was fair or appropriate. Nine of the employees were eventually forced out of the agency or allowed to resign. At least one is appealing his termination and asking to be reinstated.
The Inspector General’s report will do little to settle questions about Secret Service culture, and whether there is an attitude of permissiveness or a tendency to overlook indiscretions by some employees more than others. Another IG report, released in February 2001 by the Treasury Department, which used to oversee the agency, found that discipline was not administered evenly, and that decisions on whether to refer misconduct for investigation was left to the discretion of employees’ managers. A subsequent investigation in 2002 by U.S. News & World Report found that employees were more likely to evade punishment for sexual harassment, drunk driving, and other offenses if they had good relationships with their bosses and could count on their protection.
The report sheds little new light on the facts surrounding the evening of April 11, 2012, and it doesn’t alter the official version of events that has been conveyed in news reports and congressional testimony.
In its investigation of the Colombia affair, the Secret Service interviewed 232 subjects and witnesses, sent four inspectors to Colombia, reviewed “thousands of e-mail messages,” and administered 14 polygraph examinations, according to the report. There is no mention of the fact that Inspector General investigators have been unable to conduct their own interviews in Colombia with the women involved or knowledgeable hotel staff, because the Justice Department has reportedly not granted the IG that authority.
The report was reviewed by the Secret Service Director, who wrote in a formal reply, “We are pleased to note that the OIG’s review of our investigation found that the [Secret Service] acted expeditiously, appropriately, and professionally” in the investigation of its employees.