The White House expressed renewed confidence Thursday in the director of the Secret Service in the midst of a sordid prostitution scandal that has threatened to become a serious political distraction in an election year. A key lawmaker who oversees the Secret Service predicted more firings there soon.
President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Jay Carney, noted that some Secret Service employees involved have already lost their jobs, just days into the government's formal investigation of the incident last weekend in Colombia, where Obama was to attend a summit meeting. Carney also said the president's security in Cartagena was never compromised, and he asked for patience as official investigations continue.
"Perhaps it would be in the interests of a complete and thorough and fair investigation not to make determinations about the conclusions of an investigation before they've even been reached," Carney said. "That's the president's position."
The scandal arose ahead of the Summit of the Americas when at least some of 11 Secret Service employees brought prostitutes back to their Cartagena hotel. The agency has moved quickly to try to quell the embarrassing episode, forcing out three employees so far, including two supervisors. The supervisors were in the agency's uniformed division; one is a sergeant, according to a person familiar with Secret Service operations who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
A third employee has resigned. The employees under investigation include members of the agency's "jump teams," which are sent to sites to set up security in advance of the president's arrival. Others are on counter-assault and counter-sniper teams. The majority of the group is believed to be based in the Washington area.
Eight men remain suspended and have had their top-secret security clearances lifted. The scandal also involves about 10 military personnel and as many as 20 Colombian women.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Thursday that more firings could be imminent.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw more dismissals and more being forced out sooner rather than later," said King, who is being updated on the investigation by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. "You may see a few more today or tomorrow."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thought more people would be fired within "just a few days."
"'I expect there will be more, but that's what the investigation is all about."
Three U.S. military officials have said the military personnel include five Army Green Berets, two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.
An Air Force colonel and a military lawyer have gone to Colombia as part of the military investigation. The Secret Service probe has included interviews with the employees and hotel staff.
King said investigators in Colombia have not been able to interview the women.
A 24-year-old prostitute told The New York Times this week that the scandal became public after she fought over payment with one of the Secret Service employees, and it spilled out into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe on April 12.
Jose Pena, a Cartagena taxi driver, told The Associated Press that he picked up the woman after the dispute. She said she left the hotel, where other members of the security detail and the White House press corps were staying, after she was paid $225.
In Cartagena this week, sex workers and hotel staff were reluctant to speak about the incident, which has become an election year embarrassment in the U.S.
Prostitution is legal in Colombia, and Cartagena thrives on the sex tourism industry, Mayor Campo Elias readily acknowledged, with hundreds of prostitutes available on any given night throughout the colonial walled city.
In Washington, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who said she had not been briefed, called the incident "disgusting."
"There has to be an investigation to see how this could have happened, and those responsible should have to pay a price," Pelosi said. "But as with all these things, there are many people in the Secret Service who do their job responsibly, and we can't paint everyone with the same brush. But nonetheless, those people who were responsible have brought disgrace and it's disgusting."
Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, called for leadership changes at the Secret Service.
"I mentioned before, and I can't get a better analogy than baseball. You get three strikes," Forbes said. "They went over their budgets, they couldn't control their budget. They couldn't control who got in the White House. And now we're talking about just absolutely a fundamental principle of security planning — you don't let the prostitutes in."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada suggested the problem lies with the judgment of those involved.
"Understand this, there is not a committee hearing that's going to take the place or stop people from being stupid. There is not a bill we can pass to cause people to have common sense," Reid said. "Think about this. People that are here to protect the president, they go to Colombia and have a fight with a prostitute over how much she should be paid. That's either very stupid or a total lack of common sense."
Another Republican lawmaker said Thursday that the Secret Service incident raised questions about whether Obama was capably leading the government.
"I don't sense that this president has shown that kind of managerial leadership," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
During his daily briefing, Carney shot back: "That sounds very much like a lawmaker attempting to politicize something that is not at all political."