President Obama said Sunday that he would be “angry” if accusations prove true that his Secret Service agents hired prostitutes, while congressional Republicans called for investigations of the scandal that exploded over the weekend and overshadowed the president’s three-day Summit of the Americas trip to Colombia.
In a news conference in Cartagena before he departed, Mr. Obama said the charges, if true, would dishonor both the U.S. and the agency charged with his protection.
“If it turns out some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then, of course, I’ll be angry,” Mr. Obama said in his first public comments on the incident.
“We represent the United States,” the president said. “When we travel to another country, I expect them to observe the highest standards because we’re not just representing ourselves. We’re here on behalf of our people. … Obviously, what’s been reported does not match up with those standards.”
Republicans went further Sunday, saying the reports of agents’ bringing hookers to their hotel before Mr. Obama’s arrival made the agents vulnerable to blackmail and could still be threatening the president’s security.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he has directed his staff to launch an “immediate investigation” and likely will hold a hearing on the matter.
“They leave themselves open to threats, to blackmail,” Mr. King told “Fox News Sunday.”
The Secret Service relieved 11 agents from duty in Colombia and sent them home amid accusations that some of them brought prostitutes to their rooms at the Hotel Caribe, a luxury beachfront hotel, prior to Mr. Obama’s arrival on Friday. Prostitution is legal in Colombia in what are called “tolerated zones,” where the hotel was located.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the agency’s leadership needs to be held accountable and intimated that the weekend incident wasn’t the first.
“The investigation will not be about the 11 to 20 or more involved; it will be about how has this happened and how often has this happened before,” Mr. Issa, California Republican, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Things like this don’t happen once.”
The incident came to light when one of the agents reportedly had a prostitute in his room past the hotel’s 7 a.m. curfew for overnight “guests.” It’s unclear whether the agent got into a dispute with the prostitute over her fee, or got into an argument with a hotel employee over paying an extra charge for an overnight guest. Police were called, and the U.S. Embassy was notified.
Cavorting with prostitutes and other forms of illicit sex or vice have long been considered unacceptable behavior for men in security-sensitive jobs, with terms such as “honey trap” and “mata hari” entering the lexicon.
Three Hotel Caribe waiters told the Associated Press in Colombia that about a dozen U.S. government workers, who they presumed were the Secret Service agents, had been drinking heavily for a week. One waiter said their apparent supervisor scolded the team on the hotel’s back terrace Thursday, after which the men left the hotel.
The scandal also widened Sunday, when U.S. Southern Command took disciplinary action against five U.S. service members in relation to the incident for violating curfew.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the Southern Command, said in a statement that he was “disappointed by the entire incident and that this behavior is not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military.”
A spokesman for the Secret Service said the president’s security was never affected, but Mr. Issa said the incident has exposed serious flaws in the protective service’s operations.
Mr. Issa stopped short of saying he would hold his own hearings on the matter, but said questions need to be answered and possible security threats may already exist.
“In this particular case, the president may not have been in danger,” Mr. Issa said. “But that begs the question: What happens if somebody six months ago, six years ago, became the victim of their own misconduct and is now being blackmailed? The question is, is the whole organization in need of some soul-searching, some changes before the president, the vice president, members of the Cabinet are in danger?”
The Secret Service said the agents involved have been interviewed and placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. They were in Cartagena performing advance work for the president’s visit and were not assigned to Mr. Obama’s personal security detail.
“The Secret Service demands more from its employees, and these expectations are met and exceeded every day by the vast majority of our workforce,” Paul Morrissey, assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service’s office of government and public affairs, said in a statement. “This incident is not reflective of the behavior of our personnel as they travel every day throughout the country and the world performing their duties in a dedicated, professional manner. We regret any distraction from the Summit of the Americas this situation has caused.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama is confident that the agency can deal with the matter properly.