The American Secret Service, the agency tasked with protecting the President and the nation’s other top-level officials, is scrambling to shut down a blooming scandal after 11 agents were implicated in a prostitution scandal in Colombia last week.
American military personnel were also involved in the incident, but it’s been the Secret Service who have born the brunt of the media glare. As of Wednesday, three agents were out of a job – one was fired, one allowed to retire, and one resigned – eight others remain on administrative leave and under investigation. Lawmakers welcomed the move, but as the scandal turns increasingly political and as a separate Congressional investigation gets underway, more heads are likely on the chopping block. Meanwhile, it looks like at least one of the ousted Secret Service agents is bringing a lawsuit against the government – so while the agency might want to put this scandal behind it, it doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
What happened: Secret Service agent is a cheapskate.
The scandal erupted on April 12 when 11 Secret Service agents were sent home from Cartagena, Colombia, where they’d been preparing for President Barack Obama’s arrival for the Summit of the Americas. The agents had spent the previous night partying and drinking, and some of them allegedly ended the evening by bringing prostitutes home to their rooms at the Hotel Caribe; prostitution, notably, is mostly legal in Colombia. Early the next morning, an argument broke out between one of the women and an agent: The 24-year-old prostitute involved told The New York Times that the agent refused to pay her the agreed-upon amount of $800, instead offering her $30 – until she started banging on the door of his hotel room and rousing the other guests. He eventually ponied up $225, after the Colombian police, hotel management, and other federal agents got involved. The incident blew the cover on an evening that involved around 20 Colombian prostitutes, at least 11 Secret Service agents and 10 American military officers, who are now under a separate Pentagon investigation.
“They never told me they were with Obama,” one of the women told The New York Times, in response to concerns that agents had boasted that they were protecting the President. “They were very discreet.”
“Most everything about the case has become politically explosive, particularly in the charged atmosphere of a campaign season,” Daily Beast reporter Tara McElvey noted; other outlets have described the scandal as embarrassing to Obama. Already, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has claimed that if elected, he’ll “clean house” at the agency, though he, in a rare moment of agreement with Obama, expressed his confidence in Secret Service director Mark Sullivan. Meanwhile Republican Rep. Peter King, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the Secret Service, said, “It’s certainly not over.”
During a press conference in Colombia, Obama responded to the scandal: “If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I’ll be angry… [W]hen we travel to another country, I expect us to observe the highest standards because we’re not just representing ourselves, we’re here on behalf of our people. And that means that we conduct ourselves with the utmost dignity and probity. And obviously what’s been reported doesn’t match up with those standards.”
A reputation tarnished.
Americans, or at least the Americans on the editorial board of the North Jersey Herald News, thought they could depend on the honourable men and women of the Secret Service, but this scandal has shaken that faith. “This was not some fraternity party that got out of hand. We are talking about very grave matters indeed, the health and well-being of the elected leader of this country. We welcome a full and objective review,” the paper said, adding, “We do not welcome political grandstanding on the issue.”
What’s the big deal?
Rowan at blog Irregular Times agreed that paying for sex isn’t such a great idea, but for it to reach the “level of scandal”, there ought to be some connection to a high political position, or maybe even classified information being exchanged. “As I understand it, though, there was no political aspect to the sex, and the Secret Service agents and soldiers are mid-level at best. So, I ask, is there something I’m not understanding?”
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