Joint Chiefs chairman ‘embarrassed’ by Secret Service prostitution scandal

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Monday that the U.S. military was “embarrassed” that American service members are involved in the Colombian Secret Service scandal.

“We let the boss down,” Dempsey said at the Pentagon on Monday.

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While Dempsey said the Defense Department still doesn’t know exactly what occurred in Colombia, he said that the incident — which led to 11 Secret Service agents being placed on leave  — distracted from the substance of President Obama’s trip to Colombia.

At least five U.S. service members were also involved, and the Pentagon said Monday that the number could be higher.

“Several of our members distracted the issue from what was a very important regional engagement for our president,” Dempsey said. “Nobody is talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident.”

Eleven Secret Service agents who were in Colombia ahead of Obama’s trip were sent home on Saturday and placed on leave over allegations of involvement with prostitutes.

Reaction was swift in Congress as well, as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said his committee will be investigating the incident and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) suggested it was part of a wider problem.

The scandal drowned out other news from Obama’s trip to Colombia for a Summit of the Americas, where he announced that a trade deal with Colombia would take effect in May.

Obama addressed the scandal at a press conference Sunday, saying he expects a rigorous and thorough investigation of the allegations and would wait until its completion before passing final judgment.

“If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I’ll be angry,” Obama said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the Pentagon on Monday that he didn’t want to prejudge what had happened in Colombia, but that the U.S. Southern Command is also launching a full investigation into the service members’ alleged involvement.

Panetta said it’s a requirement that U.S. service members both at home and abroad “abide by the highest standards of behavior.”

“Obviously, if violations are determined to have been the case, then these individuals will be held accountable, and that’s as it should be,” Panetta said Monday.

Issa said Monday that the incident appeared to be part of a “pattern of behavior,” and was especially concerning because it occurred before Obama arrived and was not a “wheels-up” party.

“What we see is that this story is larger than 11 individuals,” Issa said on “CBS This Morning” on Monday.

“The question is in this case you had a pre-wheels-down party,” he said. “You had drinking, you had activities that clearly compromised the ring of security, at least some because you now had people inside the secure areas, people who could have come in with all kinds of microphones, or in fact could have done something or could have later on blackmailed.”

King said in a Fox News interview this weekend that he had spoken with the Secret Service officials about the incident, and that he had full confidence in Director Mark Sullivan.

The Homeland Security chairman said that the agents brought women back to their hotel rooms, which could have compromised security and created the potential for blackmail, although there was no indication yet that anything was compromised.

King said he’s instructed his staff to investigate the incident and he will probably hold hearings, while Issa said at this point his committee plans to look “over the shoulder” of the Secret Service investigation.

“What happened was wrong,” King said. “We have to find out why it happened, and it can’t be allowed to happen again.”

Pete Kasperowicz and Meghashyam Mali contributed.