The head of the US secret service went before Congress on Wednesday in an attempt to play down the Cartagena sex scandal, but his testimony appeared not to convince sceptical senators.
Mark Sullivan apologised for the Colombia incident at the homeland security committee hearings and said it was “not representative” of the service as a whole.
But the hearing was told of other alleged incidents, including a claim of partying with underage girls at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah and a secret service agent in Washington allegedly soliciting sex with an undercover police officer.
Members of Congress expressed regret that that the reputation of the secret service had been stained by the Colombia scandal, when 11 agents were suspended from duty after allegations of excessive drinking and encounters with prostitutes in Cartagena days before the arrival of Barack Obama for a Latin America summit.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, Joe Lieberman, an independent, and the ranking Republican, Susan Collins, expressed serious doubts over Sullivan’s insistence that the Cartegena scandal was isolated.
Lieberman said a review of the disciplinary record of the secret service over the last five years showed 64 incidents, including the one involving the undercover police officer.
Collins, who repeatedly pressed Sullivan during the hearing about his claim that the issue was not more widespread, said: “I think he has a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that he has a broader problem than just this one incident.” Collins said she believed the sex and alcohol allegations at Cartagena were part of a wider, ingrained culture in the secret service.
The hearing was billed as an inquiry to “restore trust and confidence” in the secret service after the Columbia scandal. The incident became public after an argument between one of the agents and a prostitute who claimed he had reneged on a deal to pay her $800.
Several of the 11 suspended agents are threatening legal action against their suspension.
Sullivan has only survived so far because he is popular on Capitol Hill, where he is seen as a well-respected, honest secret service veteran. Members of Congress have so far resisted calling for his resignation.
At the end of the hearing, Lieberman said there was still a need to get to the bottom of what happened in Cartagena and welcomed an announcement by Charles Edwards, the acting inspector general of homeland security, to conduct a separate inquiry. Edwards, who was also giving evidence to the hearing, revealed he hoped to interview all the agents allegedly involved, beginning with two on Wednesday afternoon.
Sullivan, in a statement at the start of the hearing, listed the core values of the 147-year-old secret service: justice, duty, courage, honest and loyalty. “It is precisely because of these longstanding values that the men and women of this agency are held to a higher standard. Clearly, the misconduct that took place in Cartagena, Colombia, is not representative of these values and of the high ethical standards we demand from our nearly 7,000 employees,” Sullivan said.
“I am deeply disappointed, and I apologise for the misconduct of these employees and the distraction that it has caused.”
Sullivan said that the secret service had helped organise 2,700 visits over the last seven years without any such incidents as Cartagena.
Collins, questioning Sullivan during the hearing, described the reported behaviour of agents in Cartagena as “morally repugnant”. She added: “The facts so far lead me to conclude that, while not at all representative of the majority of secret service personnel, this misconduct was almost certainly not an isolated incident.”
Senators sought assurances that safeguards could be put in place to ensure there is no repeat in the future, such as regular polygraph tests. But Sullivan was short on a detailed programme to prevent a repeat of Cartagena in the future, other than calling for more and better training.
Lieberman ran through the 64 incidents in the disciplinary record. Many of these had involved sexually explicit emails or driving while under the influence of drink, but others had involved sex, including one allegation of rape. Sullivan said the rape charge had been investigated and no charges were brought.
Separate from these complaints, Lieberman said the alleged incident at the Olympics had only recently come to light after a call to a hotline. Lieberman said it had involved five agents but Sullivan said it had been investigated and only involved two, who had left the secret service.
Members of the committee questioned whether the Cartagena incident would ever have become public if it had not been for the argument over payment. Sullivan insisted it would have done, because one of the agents would have informed on his colleagues.
Collins expressed concern that a survey showed only 60% of agents said they would inform on colleagues.