April 21, 2012

US Secret Service prostitution scandal deepens as supervisors’ roles in Obama visit revealed

The prostitution scandal engulfing the US Secret Service has deepened further with new revelations about the roles of two senior supervisors overseeing security arrangements for President Barack Obama’s visit to Colombia.

Alarming questions about the reliability and discretion of the elite bodyguard unit tasked with protecting the lives of America’s top leaders were being asked as it appeared increasingly clear that the carousing and womanising was not a one-off.

Americans were shocked to learn that two of the so-called “dirty dozen” of agents involved in the incident in Cartagena were veteran Secret Service officers who were deployed there to supervise the work of dozens of less experienced agents. The two are among six men who have already been fired or forced to resign.

It has now emerged that one of them, David Chaney, who is married, posted photographs on his public Facebook page of himself partying with scantily-clad women and guarding Sarah Palin. He joked that he was “really checking out” the former vice-presidential candidate in a comment beneath the picture.

The revelation increases the fear that, far from being a one-off event, such behaviour may have continued apparently unchecked for many years.

“The fact that he posted up pictures of Sarah Palin and racy images with other women for everyone to see shows a serious lack of judgement and discretion,” said a retired agent. “It raises serious questions about the integrity and efficacy of some members of the service.”

US diplomats are concerned about the impact on the country’s image abroad. And a former White House aide revealed that the “wings up, rings off” culture of misbehaviour by some Secret Service agents when they travelled to protect presidents was pervasive.

“I travelled for years as WH staff advance with the US Secret Service,” he wrote in an email to National Public Radio in which he asked that his name not be used.

“There was a culture of adultery among them. The phrase 'What happens on the road, stays on the road’ was commonly used by them long before Las Vegas started using it.

“Adulterous behaviour at times seemed to be a badge of honour among some of them. [There were] many wonderful agents, but among others there was enough of this type of behaviour [for me] not to be a surprised by what happened in Colombia.”

In the Cartagena incident, agents brought prostitutes back to their hotel from a nightclub where they had been drinking two days before Mr Obama’s arrival for a regional summit. Eleven members of the US armed forces are also being investigated separately over similar misconduct allegation.

The Secret Service has sought to portray the scandal as an isolated case for an agency whose officers are trained to take a bullet for the president and into whom the necessity of discretion and secrecy is inculcated from the first day of training.

US politicians and former agents have sought to highlight the professionalism of the Secret Service and insisted that they do not believe the behaviour was typical of the agency.

But the focus has now expanded from concerns about potential security lapses on the Colombia trip to broader fears that a culture of compromising behaviour exists among agents who guard US leaders — including a team of 200 who travelled with Mr Obama to London.

Mr Chaney, who has about 20 years’ experience with the Secret Service, was a supervisor in the international programmes division who oversees the work of junior agents on foreign trips.

The other ousted supervisor, Greg Stokes, also had about two decades of service and both men were said to have spent “significant time” with the presidential protection detail.

Mr Chaney’s Facebook page revealed that he had a penchant for carousing in the company of younger women in exposing outfits.

A belly dancer in a sequined bikini-style top and tight dress performs for him in one photograph taken during a holiday vacation in Egypt. In another, he is sandwiched by two attractive women kissing him on each cheek at a school reunion.

The married agent, who has an adult son, also posted a photograph of him looking at Mrs Palin from behind her. “Really checking her out”, he noted in one comment. Mrs Palin responded in a television interview: “Well check this out, buddy you’re fired!” Mr Obama, who visited Colombia for the Summit of the Americas, was briefed on the investigation into the scandal on Friday by Mark Sullivan, the embattled head of the agency.

Secret service officers are in Cartagena this weekend to question the women who returned with the agents, club-goers, hotel workers, taxi drivers as agency investigators to establish what happened on April 11.

They are also checking whether any of those involved were aged under 18. Although prostitution is legal in “tolerance zones” in Colombia, any American who pays for sex overseas with a minor could face prosecution in the US.

Dania Londono Suarez, the 24-year-old woman at the centre of the controversy, has gone into hiding after revealing photographs of her in a bikini were published. She earlier told a New York Times reporter that the scandal erupted after a dispute about her fee with an agent.

She was variously reported to have agreed a payment of between $250 and $800 with the agent at the nightclub. But the next morning, he would only agree to pay her about $30 in local currency, she said.

A row broke out and he locked her out of the room. Miss Suarez, who insisted to the newspaper that she was “an escort, not a prostitute”, was joined by a woman who had been in another agent’s room as they shouted from outside the door.

Colombian policemen stationed in the hotel were then alerted, while other US Secret Service agents tried to block their access to the door. American diplomats were informed of the incident and they reported the details to Washington, from where the order was issued for the agents to be recalled.

The men have all had their security clearances cleared while the investigation continues.

Officials have insisted that the president’s security was not in danger, that the men’s guns and details of the trip were kept under armed guard in a secure room and that no evidence of drugs has been found in the rooms.

But concerns about the agents’ ability to conduct their mission and the danger of blackmail had already been raised, as well as alarm about the involvement in the Colombian prostitution business of drugs cartels that have been the long-term targets of US law enforcement operations.

Now it appears that the Cartagena incident has exposed a much more far-reaching and dangerous culture within an agency long held up for its dedication and bravery.

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