Secret Service scandal may be systemic of agency culture

A Senate panel investigating the Columbia prostitution scandal involving a dozen Secret Service agents believes the incident may not be an isolated occurrence but rather systemic of the agency’s culture.

“Contrary to the conventional story line, this was not simply a single, organized group that went out for a night on the town together,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “This was not a one-time event. The circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture.”

The Secret Service agents are accused of drinking heavily at a strip bar, and then bringing prostitutes back to their hotel during the April trip to Cartagena where President Barack Obama was planning to visit. Hotel staff said they had to break up a fight in the hallway between an agent and a prostitute as they argued over how much the woman charged. The scandal has tarnished the reputation of the agency, earning it the nickname “Secret Circus.”

The agents did not try and conceal their behavior that night, and registered the prostitutes as overnight guests at the hotel under their real names. Collins said the action strongly suggest the agents did not think they would get caught.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, says there have been 64 complaints of sexual misconduct made against the Secret Service over the last five years.

“If one agent had not argued with a woman about how much money he owed her, the world would not know this sordid story,” Lieberman said at a hearing last week examining the internal investigation ongoing with the agency.

Lieberman says the purpose of his committee’s investigation is to restore the Secret Service’s credibility, not to diminish the agency.

However, Lieberman said it was difficult to believe that in this instance, agents “suddenly and spontaneously did something agents never did before.”

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told the panel that the president’s security was never breached and that draconian measures have been put in place to prevent a similar incident.

“I am deeply disappointed, and I apologize for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction that it has caused,” Sullivan said.

At least eight agents have resigned in light of the scandal and at least two agents are challenging claims they were involved.

The training manual has been updated to include a rule that U.S. laws are to be observed while travelling abroad, Sullivan said. Prostitution is legal in Colombia.

“Isn’t it already pretty clear those guidelines, this kind of behavior, is not acceptable?” asked Collins, the ranking Republican on the panel.

“I don’t think they need these guidelines,” Sullivan responded, adding that the intention was to reinforce expected behavior.

The Secret Service has been involved in 3,700 assignments over the last six years without incident. “This is not a cultural issue, this is not a systemic issue with us,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) gave the Secret Service a Bible lesson from the Gospel of John, and Jesus Christ’s response to a woman accused of committing adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

“‘Go and sin no more,’” Carper told the director.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) called the scandal “incredibly sad” and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) observed, “the image is stained.”

Lieberman said his panel would continue its investigation into the matter. The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general told the panel he is also conducting an internal investigation, but that he was not ready to issue a report.