- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Three more Secret Service employees have been forced out of the government, bringing to nine the number of people who have lost their jobs in the prostitution scandal roiling the agency.

President Obama, in his first extended comments on the scandal, said Tuesday that the employees at the center of the sordid episode were “knuckleheads,” but not representative of the agency that protects his family in the glare of public life.

Two employees have resigned and a third is having his national security clearance revoked, the Secret Service said Tuesday. The employee whose clearance is being revoked can appeal the decision.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King, New York Republican, said one of the resigning agents stayed at the Hilton Hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, where Mr. Obama stayed for the Summit of the Americas last week. The others stayed at the nearby Hotel Caribe.

Two others have been cleared of serious misconduct. Last week, six employees, including two supervisors, were forced out and another was cleared of serious wrongdoing. The three who were cleared will still face “appropriate administrative action,” the Secret Service said.

The scandal erupted after a fight over payment between a Colombian prostitute and a Secret Service employee spilled into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe. A dozen military personnel have also been implicated, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said this week they have had their security clearances suspended.

Mr. Obama acknowledged Tuesday that the scandal was “a little distracting,” but pressed for perspective.

“These guys are incredible. They protect me. They protect Michelle. They protect the girls. They protect our officials all around the world,” the president said on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”

“A couple of knuckleheads shouldn’t detract from what they do,” Mr. Obama added. “What these guys were thinking, I don’t know. That’s why they’re not there anymore.”

Even as Mr. Obama spoke, officials on Capitol Hill were probing for any misconduct in the agency in the past decade and girding for the first public accounting of an incident that has embarrassed the administration.

A dozen Secret Service personnel and another 12 military enlistees preparing for Mr. Obama’s visit to Cartagena have been under investigation for consorting with prostitutes.

The Colombia scandal has been widely denounced by officials in Washington, but it’s a delicate political matter in an election year with the presidency and congressional majorities at stake.

All sides have praised Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan’s swift action and thorough investigation, in part because he’s spent significant time keeping key lawmakers in the loop. Pentagon officials too are investigating and are expected to brief Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and ranking Republican Sen. John McCain on Wednesday.

Even so, at least four congressional committees are investigating on the grounds that letting foreign nationals near U.S. personnel with sensitive information about the president’s visit is a national security risk. Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano is expected to face tough questions Wednesday from the Senate Judiciary Committee on such matters as whether the agency’s inspector general has launched an independent investigation.

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