If proven true, consequences of Secret Service prostitution scandal could be far-reaching

The Takeaway

An anonymous Secret Service agent stands watch near President Barack Obama in November 2011. As yet unidentified Secret Service agents have been suspended while the agency investigates a prostitution scandal in Colombia. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters.)

Eleven Secret Service employees were sent home from President Barack Obama's trip to Colombia over the weekend after being accused of bringing prostitutes back to their hotel in Cartagena before Obama arrived.

At least five members of the U.S. military have also been ensnared in a related, but separate controversy involving missed curfews. The scandals proved to be a major distraction and topic of conversation at the summit.

The Secret Service agents were placed on leave while the agency investigates their conduct and the U.S. armed forces members were confined to their quarters pending a Department of Defense investigation. Although prostitution is legal in parts of Colombia and no law was broken, if the reports are true, the employees still violated rules of conduct.

"What happened here in Colombia is being investigated by the director of the Secret Service," Obama said. "I expect that investigation to be thorough and I expect it to be rigorous. If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I'll be angry."

There have been reports that the men, some of whom are married, may have tried to use their Secret Service status to keep from having to pay the prostitutes. Other reports are that they balked at having to register the women when they brought them back to their upscale hotel. The officers are believed to be part of a Secret Service support team, not part of Obama's direct security team of ever the security advance team that is repsonsible for performing surveilance of all of the sites where Obama might visit. These agents are expected to man metal detectors, handle bomb-sniffing dogs and other tasks related to the president's safety but not directly part of his security detail, according to media reports including a detailed account from the New York Post.

Tim Weiner, author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI," has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his work on national security. Weiner said employees' indiscretions, if proven true, could have put Obama's life at risk.

"No law broken except one fundamental law, which is the law of common sense," Weiner said. "You're assigned to protect the president. You're overseas and your job is to create a security cordon and a plan to protect his life and guard against threats."

Weiner said the allegations, if proven true, are most bone-headed thing he's ever heard of.

"You're trading seconds for pleasure for potential hours of danger," Weiner said.

Officials are particularly concerned the incident happened in Colombia, because of that country's history of drug violence, criminal violence and even government corruption that make it ripe with potential danger for Obama ¬タヤ and for security personnel.

Weiner said the Secret Service is supposed to be one of the most elite police agencies in the world and has had as a mission since 1901 to protect the president.

"You protect the President of the United States and that is your life," Weiner said. "If you're out partying all night, and drinking rum and messing with prostitutes, you've violating your own codes of conduct."

In principle, Secret Service agents are to live a "monkish" life, Weiner said. On call at all times, except perhaps when sleeping, agents are warned against doing anything that may compromise their safety and their top secret security clearance. According to some reports, even have an extramarital affair is enough to cost an agent his or her security clearance — and therefore the job itself.

Every organization can have a bad apple or two, but having an entire unit compromised means, Weiner said, there are serious structural problems in the organization that need to be addressed.