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Secret Service Scandal: What’s Known, What’s Under Investigation?

April 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Secret Service sent 11 agents home after allegations of misconduct arose involving prostitutes at their hotel in Colombia ahead of President Obama's trip to the Summit of the Americas. Margaret Warner discusses the allegations with former Secret Service chief Ralph Basham and The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, allegations of misconduct by the agents sent ahead of President Obama on his trip to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas last week.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The Secret Service sent 11 of its agents home after allegations of misconduct involving prostitutes at their hotel in Cartagena.

In an announcement Saturday, the agency said, “The nature of the allegations, coupled with a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct, resulted in the Secret Service taking the decisive action to relieve these individuals of their assignment, return them to their place of duty, and replace them with additional Secret Service personnel.”

All 11 were placed on leave and late today had their security clearances rescinded. The Secret Service noted none were assigned to the presidential protective division. Military personnel staying in the same hotel also are being investigated, according to the Pentagon.

President Obama asked for a rigorous investigation in comments to reporters Sunday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I will be angry, because my attitude with respect to the Secret Service personnel is no different than what I expect out of my delegation that is sitting here. We’re representing the people of the United States.

We’re representing the people of the United States. And when we travel to another country, I expect us to observe the highest standards, because we’re not just representing ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to Laura Meckler, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal who traveled with the president to Colombia, and Ralph Basham, director of the Secret Service from 2003 to 2006. He’s now with Command Consulting Group, a security consulting firm.

Welcome to you both.

Laura, first of all, tell us what happened here. What got these agents in this trouble?

LAURA MECKLER, The Wall Street Journal: Well, evidently, these agents were staying at this hotel which has a policy that if you bring a guest to your room, you need to leave that guest’s identification at the front desk.

And they also have to be out by 7:00 a.m. Well, 7:00 a.m. rolled around and. . .

MARGARET WARNER: This is Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

LAURA MECKLER: This was Wednesday night last week. So this is two days before President Obama was due to arrive for the Summit of the Americas.

So 7:00 a.m. rolled around and there was still an I.D. at the front desk. So the hotel manager went and knocked on the door. A Secret Service agent was staying in that room. He wouldn’t answer the door. So the hotel manager called the local police, who came. They opened the door then.

Then a little bit of a dispute ensued when this woman who was there, he asked her to leave. And she said she wanted to be paid first. He said, I don’t owe you any money. And she said, yes, you do. And, well, he paid her. She left. And then that was the end of it, except for the fact that there’s a rule the Colombian police have, which is that whenever an incident involving a foreign national takes place and that they get involved in, they file a report with the embassy.

And that’s what happened. They filed a report with the American Embassy. And then the U.S. officials saw that this was a Secret Service agent involved. And that got the investigation rolling.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Basham, what are — we know we don’t know the facts here yet.

W. RALPH BASHAM, former Secret Service director: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: But what are the rules of conduct for Secret Service agents on the road when they’re on a presidential advance trip like this?

W. RALPH BASHAM: Well, actually, the rules of conduct for the Secret Service, whether they’re on the road or not, are pretty much the same anywhere, recognizing that the position that they hold reflects on the organization, on the administration, and on the White House itself.

MARGARET WARNER: But are there prohibitions against drinking, against bringing men or women to your room?

W. RALPH BASHAM: Well, certainly there are prohibitions on bringing someone to your room for the purposes of illicit conduct, you could say. But in terms of drinking, well, at the end of a very tough, stressful day, it’s not uncommon for them to go and relax with others in the traveling party. So, no, there’s no — but there are restrictions on how much they drink and how they conduct themselves when they drink.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s turn to the security aspect of this, that is, the president’s security, because that is, of course, what really concerns everyone.

First of all, Laura, explain if you can briefly — the agency made a big point of noting that these men were not part of the presidential protective division, though there were special agents and uniformed division officers, we understand, including supervisors.

But what does that mean? Decode that for us.

LAURA MECKLER: Well, that means that they aren’t the people who are directly with the people. They aren’t the people who are directly surrounding him to make sure that he stays safe.

There’s lots of agents who go ahead and secure different areas where he may be in, make sure the general environment is safe and secure. But these guys were not directly on the president’s detail. That doesn’t mean though that they aren’t in a position that could hurt the president, because they might have information that people want.

They put themselves, a lot of experts say, in a position to potentially be blackmailed or extorted for this information, because now somebody might have some dirt on them, essentially.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Basham, if you were looking at this situation, if this were the situation, what would concern you as the potential security risk?

W. RALPH BASHAM: Well, the same thing that concerned the director, Director Sullivan, and his team, that these — this incident had been reported, and recognizing — these agents recognizing that they were going to probably be disciplined for this would be distracted — could be distracted because they’re worried or concerned.

And so — but the fact — the fact that the director pulled them out of there quickly was — that obviously was a concern of his.

MARGARET WARNER: Someone today also raised the point that the agents, all the agents get that really detailed schedule of the president’s movements, much more detailed than the press even gets, like, 8:22, the president will move from position A to position B.

Is that the case?

W. RALPH BASHAM: Well, not every agent gets that detailed.

The advance team and the advance team leader would have that information.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s what I mean. So. . .

W. RALPH BASHAM: I don’t know that the agents, you know, who allegedly did this had access to that information. Probably not. Probably not.

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s go to the question of culture because this is what Congressman Darrell Issa, who is chairman of the government oversight committee, raised. And he said he really that the investigation was fine as far as it went, but there needed to be a deeper probe really into what this said about the culture at the agency.

And he said at one point, to have so many agents involved, things like this don’t happen once if they didn’t happen before.

What are you hearing from people you’re talking to in the agency and the White House about this larger question?

LAURA MECKLER: Right. Well, that is a question.

And there’s sort of a — it’s kind of an open secret among many who have been in and around the Secret Service that there’s a culture of — especially on foreign travel — that some of the normal rules and mores don’t apply.

There’s a phrase that gets bandied about, not just among the Secret Service, but indeed in the Secret Service, which is called wheels up, rings off, meaning once the airplane wheels go up, your wedding rings can come off. And we all know what that would imply.

There is sort of a sense — that’s not to say that every Secret Service agent would be engaged in activity like this or even that most would. But this is not — that phrase and that attitude is not uncommon.

MARGARET WARNER: If you were still the director, would you be worried about that, I mean the fact that so — it’s one thing if there are one or two people. But that there are 11 people, does that imply to you, as Darrell Issa said, that in a situation like that, it suggests this is, maybe not routine, but not unique?

W. RALPH BASHAM: I spent a total of 34 years in the Secret Service, did a lot of travel.

There were occasions when after a particularly difficult trip, agents and staff would get together, relax after the protectee had left the area. But this idea that wheels up and rings off, it is just not — it’s not true. I mean, it may be something someone can speculate about. But unless you have been there and been a part of this, it’s hard to. . .

MARGARET WARNER: And what about before the president even arrives?

W. RALPH BASHAM: Well, that’s even more uncommon, quite frankly, because they’re focused on the mission. They’re focused on the arrival of the president.

They have very, very specific duties that they have to perform and be engaged in. They know they have got to get up every morning and be ready to go to work and to take on this incredibly challenging mission. And so that’s what is unique about this story, is that it doesn’t happen.

And if the congressman has information that would lead him to believe that there have been other incidents of this type, then I suggest he come forward, give to it the proper authorities and have it investigated.

MARGARET WARNER: If I misquoted him, I’m sorry. He didn’t say that. He’s just saying human nature suggests that there might have been others.

So, Laura, what can you tell us about the investigation? How many different investigations are there? How deep is it going to go?

LAURA MECKLER: Right.

Well, we know of at least three different at least places where this is being looked into. Of course, the Secret Service itself has promised a very thorough and complete investigation. That’s the main place. Then you have two congressional committeemen, committee chairmen who have each said that they’re going to look into this, Darrell Issa at the Oversight Committee, who you mentioned, and also Rep. Peter King, Chairman King, of the Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight over the Secret Service.

Both of them have only said that they’re going to have staff look into this. They’re going to do some ground work investigation. Neither one has promised hearings. So I think we have to really see, how serious is this? Is this just in the immediate wake of the news, them saying, yes, we’re going to look into it, or is there something deeper? And I think that that’s unanswered at this point.

And I think that that is what they’re going to try to get at is, how widespread is this and do we need more attention?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you both very much.

Laura Meckler and Ralph Basham, thanks.

W. RALPH BASHAM: Thank you.

LAURA MECKLER: Thank you.

W. RALPH BASHAM: Thank you.