WASHINGTON - The Secret Service acknowledged Thursday it is investigating whether its employees hired strippers and prostitutes in advance of President Barack Obama's visit last year to El Salvador. The disclosure came hours after the Homeland Security secretary assured skeptical senators that a separate prostitution scandal in Colombia appeared to be an isolated incident.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, Edwin Donovan, said the agency was investigating allegations raised in news reports about unprofessional behavior that have emerged in the aftermath of the prostitution scandal in Colombia. The latest, by Seattle television station KIRO-TV, quoted anonymous sources as saying that Secret Service employees received sexual favors from strippers at a club in San Salvador and took prostitutes to their hotel rooms ahead of Obama's visit there in March 2011.
Prostitution is legal in both Colombia and El Salvador.
Separately, the Washington Post earlier this week cited unnamed "confidants" of the Secret Service officers implicated in the Colombia scandal saying senior managers tolerated similar behavior during official trips. It described a visit to Buenos Aires in 2009 by former President Bill Clinton, whose protective detail it said included agents and uniformed officers. During that trip, the Post said, members of the detail went out for a late night of partying at strip clubs.
"Any information brought to our attention that can be assessed as credible will be followed up on in an appropriate manner," Donovan said.
The expansion of any investigation into immoral behavior by the Secret Service represents another mark against an agency that has been tarnished by the prostitution scandal. At an oversight hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, senators struggled to reconcile the image of courageous agents assigned to protect the lives of the president and his family with the image of a fraternity atmosphere that has emerged from its investigation in Colombia so far.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised the Secret Service as "wise, very professional men and women" and called it shocking that so many of the agency's employees were implicated in Colombia.
At the same hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there was no evidence of similar behavior, based on a review of complaints during the past 2.5 years to the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility. She said that if there was a pattern of such behavior, "that would be a surprise to me."
The Colombia scandal erupted the morning of April 12, when a fight over payment between a prostitute and a Secret Service officer spilled into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe.
Eight of the Secret Service officers have been forced out, and the agency is trying to permanently revoke the security clearance of one. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing but face administrative discipline. One of the Secret Service officers was staying at the Hilton hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, the same hotel where President Barack Obama later stayed for the Summit of the Americas.
Another dozen military personnel also were implicated. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that all have had their security clearances suspended.
The Defense Department briefed senators on Wednesday about its investigation, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday he was unsatisfied with what the Pentagon told lawmakers. Unlike for civilian U.S. government employees, soliciting prostitutes is a criminal offense for U.S. military personnel even in countries where prostitution is otherwise legal.
"Secretary Napolitano and especially the director of the Secret Service has been pretty forthcoming in many aspects of this, unlike the Pentagon, which has completely stonewalled, using the excuse that a Uniform Code of Military Justice - as you know, that's the military law - somehow is a barrier to us receiving information," McCain said Thursday on the CBS program "This Morning."