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Investigation into Secret Service scandal in Colombia widens

The Pentagon investigates 10 military personnel in an inquiry into whether an advance security team for Obama's visit hired prostitutes.

April 16, 2012|By David S. Cloud and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • A general view of the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia. U.S. secret service agents who have been accused of misconduct amid a sex scandal had reportedly stayed at the Hotel Caribe before being sent back to the U.S.
A general view of the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia. U.S. secret service… (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is investigating 10 U.S. military members in a widening inquiry into whether an advance team led by the Secret Service hired prostitutes or engaged in other misconduct before President Obama visited Colombia for a weekend summit, U.S. officials said Monday.

The Pentagon investigation is focusing on five Army Special Forces soldiers, two Marines, two Navy personnel and one member of the Air Force, a U.S. military official said.

The Navy and Air Force personnel belong to an explosives detection unit, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

At least five of the 10 were being flown back to the U.S. on Monday. A U.S. colonel was en route to Cartagena, Colombia, to supervise the Pentagon portion of the investigation into an incident that has embarrassed the White House, the Secret Service and the Pentagon.

"We let the boss down," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference, referring to Obama. "I can speak for myself and my fellow chiefs: We're embarrassed by what occurred in Colombia, though we're not sure exactly what it is."

The Secret Service ordered 11 agents home from Cartagena on Thursday, a day before Obama arrived, after police were called to their beachfront hotel and discovered women believed to be prostitutes in several rooms. The agents, who were not part of the unit assigned to protect Obama, were placed on administrative leave.

Obama told a news conference Sunday in Cartagena that he would be angry if the allegations of misconduct were true because he expected representatives of the U.S. government to act with "the utmost in dignity and probity."

Obama said he would withhold judgment until the investigation was complete. "I expect that investigation to be thorough and I expect it to be rigorous," he said.

When news of the scandal broke, the military said five service members had been confined to quarters in Cartagena for violating curfew. But a preliminary investigation by a military officer fromthe U.S. Embassyin Bogota determined that more military personnel may have been involved, and five more names were added, officials said.

All 10 were staying at the posh Hotel Caribe on the seafront in Cartagena. The 11 Secret Service agents had rooms in the same hotel. Some Americans there engaged in heavy drinking and rowdy behavior, triggering complaints on the night of the incident, according to published reports.

The 10 military members "were in the same hotel, and when the police were called they somehow got caught up in the incident," said Col. Scott Malcom, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which is handling the military investigation.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the military members were assigned to support the Secret Service in preparation for Obama's official visit to the weekend Summit of the Americas, which ended Sunday. Little said they were not directly involved in presidential security.

Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said the internal investigation remained a "top priority."

The 11 Secret Service employees included special agents and members of the Uniformed Division. They were part of a detail that works in advance of presidential arrivals, securing buildings and helping provide protection for other government officials.

White House officials said the president's security was not compromised.

david.cloud@latimes.com

kathleen.hessessey@latimes.com

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