A US Senate panel investigating how members of the Secret Service came to be caught with their pants down, as it were, on a mission to Colombia heard yesterday of a wider history of allegations of sexual misdeeds inside the elite agency. Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairing the panel, cited 64 instances since 2007 of agents being accused of sexual misconduct, including one complaint of "non-consensual intercourse". Appealing to insiders to come forward, he added: "We can only know what the records of the Secret Service reveal."
Mr Lieberman and the Senate Homeland Security Committee are investigating the biggest scandal to hit the agency, in which a dozen Secret Service staff were accused of misconduct for bringing women, some of them prostitutes, back to their hotel rooms in Cartagena ahead of a presidential trip last month.
At least 11 Secret Service men, including two supervisors, were identified as participants and eight have lost their jobs. About 12 other military personnel have also been implicated.
"It is hard for many people, including me, to believe that on one night in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, 11 Secret Service agents – there to protect the President – suddenly and spontaneously did something they or other agents had never done before," Mr Lieberman said.
According to The Washington Post, four of those sacked or forced to resign will fight to get their jobs back on the grounds that men misbehaving, particularly while travelling overseas, had been tolerated by agency heads.
During such trips, the agents sometimes called themselves members of the "Secret Circus", and what happened in foreign climes should stay in foreign climes, they claimed.
For some on the Senate panel, however, there is no such thing as innocent shenanigans where the Secret Service is concerned. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said that any such behaviour by agents opened them to the possibility of blackmail, which could put the President at risk.
"This was not a one-time event," said Ms Collins, the senior Republican on the committee. "The circumstances unfortunately suggest an issue of culture. I want to hear what the Secret Service is doing to encourage people to report egregious behaviour when they see it."
Ms Collins also disputed media reports that the trouble in Cartagena revolved around one group of agents going to one club.
She claimed that employees split up and separately visited an assortment of clubs, bars and even brothels in the city and engaged in behaviour that was "morally repugnant".
Seen until now as a cadre of bullet-proof professionals identifiable by their sharp suits, square jaws and squiggly earpieces, the Secret Service finds itself in a public relations nightmare.
Taking the heat on Capitol Hill yesterday was its director, Mark Sullivan, who insisted that generally his employees were "among the most dedicated, hardest working, self-sacrificing employees within the federal government".
Mr Sullivan was at pains to stress that Mr Obama's security in Cartagena was not compromised by the between-the-sheets misadventures of his men.