The US Secret Service was yesterday stepping up its investigation into claims that agents dispatched to Colombia ahead of a weekend summit consorted with prostitutes, after President Barack Obama said he would be "angry" if the allegations turned out to be true.
At least 11 élite agents with the Secret Service who were in Cartagena ahead of the President's arrival at the Summit of the Americas face possible disciplinary action for allegedly bringing local prostitutes to their rooms at the fancy Caribe Hotel, where the US delegation stayed.
Lurid reports of secret agents "gone wild" in the resort town overshadowed the summit of leaders from North and South America and threatened to become a major embarrassment for the Secret Service. According to the Daily News in New York, the agents found the women in a dingy local "love club". The Defence Department said it was also looking into whether five of its personnel may have violated a curfew and participated in wider misconduct.
Mr Obama was forced to address the affair at an end-of-summit press conference. "When we travel, we have to observe the highest standards," he said. "We're not just representing ourselves. We're here on behalf of our people. If it turns out that that some of the allegations made in the press are confirmed, then of course, I'll be angry." He made it clear that he expected a "rigorous" investigation into all the claims.
The scandal may prompt calls from Congress for an overhaul of the leadership structure in the Secret Service, an élite cadre of agents that, according to its critics, has long escaped proper scrutiny. "This really is the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service," Ron Kessler, author of In the President's Secret Service, said. "There's a culture in the Secret Service that's fostered by the management of just nodding, winking, favouritism."
Darrell Issa, a Republican and chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said: "They don't just protect the President, of course; they protect the cabinet members, the Vice-President, the first family, candidates. When you look at this, you realise if you can have this kind of breakdown, one that could lead to blackmail... then we've got to ask: where are the systems in place to prevent this in the future?"
The incident occurred a few days before the start of the summit and Mr Obama's arrival. Prostitution is legal in some designated zones in Colombia. Women brought to the Caribe Hotel would have been expected to leave their IDs at the front desk and retrieve them after leaving before 7am.
One of the prostitutes failed to meet the 7am deadline after getting into an argument with an agent about payment. That was reported to the police, who informed the US embassy.