The conduct of 12 U.S. Secret Service agents who took prostitutes back to their hotel rooms while on detail in Cartagena does not represents a broader culture within the intelligence agency, said Secret Service director Mark Sullivan.
Sullivan said he was “deeply disappointed” by the conduct of the agents, who entertained the women at the Caribe Hotel days before President Barack Obama arrived in the Caribbean city for the Summit of the Americas in April.
The “misconduct of a few” does not define the internal character of the agency, Sullivan said.
“The notion that this type of behavior is condoned or authorized is absurd in my opinion,” he told the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, which is investigating the scandal.
During his 29 years in the agency, “I never one time had any supervisor or any other agent tell me this kind of behavior is condoned,” he added.
Chairman of the committee Senator Joseph Lieberman said the hearing was focused on restoring the credibility and reputation of Secret Service, both heavily damaged by the ongoing prostitute affair.
“This is like a wound to a body. We’ve got to get in it, clean it out, and let it heal,” Lieberman said.
The hearing came a day after the Washington Post reported that four agents removed from their jobs in the wake of the scandal are fighting their dismissal, alleging that the “agency is making them scapegoats for behavior it has long tolerated.”
The article went on to describe the nickname for the arrival of the intelligence agency in a foreign city as the “secret circus.” Sullivan question the newspaper’s use of anymous sources in the article.
During the hearing senators expressed doubts that the Cartagena scandal was an aberration.
Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican in the committee, said the agent’s actions appear to point to an “issue of culture” in the Secret Service and that the misconduct was “almost certainly not an isolated incident.”
All the agents used their real names and those of the women when checking their guests into the hotel, she said.
The agents were “so unconcerned about being caught that they didn’t seek to conceal” their actions, she charged.
The fact that two of the agents involved were supervisors with 22 and 21 years of experience “sent a message to the rank and file that this behavior is somehow tolerated on the road,” she claimed.
Sullivan responded that “between alcohol and the environment, these individuals did some really dumb things” which could not have been done “because they believed this kind of behavior would be tolerated.”
He defended the “integrity and character” of Secret Service agents, and said that in 37,000 trips around the world over the last six years, no incident similar to the one in Cartagena has been reported.
“Senator, I’m trying to convince you that it’s not an issue of culture,” he said. “I just do not think that this is something that is systemic within this organization.”
Sullivan said that all of the agents implicated in the scandal said they had not previously engaged in similar behavior. He admitted under questioning that agents had the option of whether to submit to a polygraph test or answer certain questions under a polygraph test.
The Secret Service investigation found that there have been 64 complaints of sexual misconduct made against agency personnel over the last five years, none of which replicate the circumstances of Cartagena.
He also stressed that the incident did not breach national security. According to Sullivan none of the officers had been briefed on their assignments before President Obama arrived. None had weapons, classified documents or security equipment in their hotel rooms, he said.
The acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, Charles Edwards, also testified before the committee.
Edwards said his office was conducting an extensive review of the Secret Service investigation, as well as conducting independent interviews. Senators Collins and Lieberman both urged Edwards to go beyond a review and independently probe the circumstances surrounding the scandal.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and a 13th Secret Service agent have been implicated this week in a similar but unrelated scandal involving misconduct in Cartagena.
“We now learn that at least two DEA agents apparently entertained female foreign national masseuses in the Cartagena apartment of one of the agents,” Collins said in a statement Tuesday. “The evidence uncovered thus far indicates that this likely was not just a one-time incident.”