More US Secret Service agents gone; Obama briefed
Washington: Three more Secret Service officers resigned on Friday in the expanding prostitution scandal that has brought scorching criticism of agents` behaviour in Colombia just before President Barack Obama`s visit for a summit meeting last week.
Agency director Mark Sullivan came to the White House late Friday to personally brief Obama in the Oval Office.
The Secret Service announced the new resignations, bringing to six the number of agency officers who have lost their jobs so far because of events at their hotel in Cartagena.
Also late Friday, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa urged a broader investigation, including checking hotel records for White House advance staff and communications personnel who were in Cartagena for the summit. In a letter to Sullivan and the inspector general at the Homeland Security Department, Grassley asked whether hotel records for the White House staffers had been pulled as part of the investigations.
An additional Secret Service employee was implicated on Friday, a government official said, commenting only on condition of anonymity concerning the continuing investigation. That brings the number to 12. One has been cleared of serious misconduct but still faces administrative action, an official said.
Obama`s spokesman has assailed Republican criticism that has attempted to blame a lack of presidential leadership for the scandal and has said Obama would be angry if allegations published so far proved to be true. Friday`s was Obama`s first personal briefing by Sullivan on the subject, officials said.
Involvement by 11 Secret Service employees had been noted earlier. The 12th has been placed on administrative leave.
The scandal also involves at least 11 military members who were working on security before Obama arrived in Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas. The Pentagon acknowledged on Friday that the 11th military person, a member of the Army, was implicated.
The incident in Colombia involved at least some Secret Service personnel bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms. News of the incident, which involves at least 20 Colombian women, broke a week ago after a fight over payment between a prostitute and a Secret Service agent spilled into the hotel hallway. A 24-year-old Colombian prostitute told The New York Times that the agent agreed to pay her USD 800 for a night of sex but the next morning offered her only USD 30. She eventually left the hotel, she told the newspaper, after she was paid USD 225.
Two Secret Service supervisors and another employee were forced out of the agency earlier in the week. All of the agents being investigated have had their top-secret clearances revoked.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for two Secret Service supervisors said that Obama`s safety was never at risk, and he criticised leaks of internal government investigations in the case, signalling a possible strategy for an upcoming legal defence.
The Secret Service briefed about two-dozen congressional staff members on Friday, mainly from the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to one individual who was there but was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The person said investigators have photo ID`s and names from a Cartagena, Colombia, hotel registry for all the women who stayed overnight and are in the process of conducting interviews. Investigators have interviewed maids and said no alcohol or drugs were found in the rooms.
Those under investigation were offered polygraphs and drug tests. It is unclear whether anyone accepted, the person said.
Grassley, in his letter to Sullivan and the Homeland Security inspector general, Charles Edwards, asked about checks on hotels in Cartagena for White House advance staff members and the White House Communications Agency, which includes military personnel: "Have records for overnight guests for those entities been pulled as part of the investigation? ... If not, why not?"
Additionally, Grassley, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked whether rooms were shared by Secret Service, the communications agency and the presidential advance staff.
As for the military personnel noted previously, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was getting regular updates on the investigation.
"He understands the level of interest in this issue," Little said. "He has serious concerns about the alleged misconduct."
Little said members of Congress have not yet been briefed on the military investigation but would be "in the near future”.
In a letter to Secret Service employees on Monday and obtained by a news agency, director Sullivan said the agency had moved in a "swift, decisive manner immediately after this incident was brought to our attention”.
He praised "the overwhelming majority" of employees who he said had acted with the "highest levels of professionalism and ethical behaviour”.
"Our job, our mission, our responsibility is to the President, the American people and the individuals we are entrusted to protect," Sullivan said. "This is not just a matter of honour, although this is critical. It is imperative, as part of our sworn duties, to always act both personally and professionally in a manner that recognises the seriousness and consequence of our mission."
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