By Jordy Yager - 05/23/12 04:36 PM EDT
The director of the Secret Service on Wednesday told senators he was “dumbfounded” when he discovered agents had invited prostitutes back to their hotel rooms while preparing for President Obama’s visit to Colombia.
Mark Sullivan, the head of the president’s protective service, said the incident was an isolated event and not an indication of bigger problems at the Secret Service.
“I just think that between the alcohol and the environment these individuals did some really dumb things. And I just can’t explain why they would have done what they do. But I will tell you that I do not believe they would have done it because they believe this type of behavior would have been tolerated.
“When I was first apprised of this situation I was dumbfounded.”
Making his first public appearance since the scandal erupted, Sullivan apologized to senators for the agents' behavior.
"I am deeply disappointed and I apologize."
The incident occurred last month in Cartagena, Colombia, when a dozen Secret Service agents on duty as the advance team for Obama’s visit allegedly invited prostitutes back to their hotel rooms.
Sullivan has taken administrative action against all of the agents who were allegedly involved in the incident, which came to light after one of the women involved spoke out.
In a packed committee room with dozens of journalists and four U.S. Capitol Police officers, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) questioned whether the agents were afraid of getting caught with the prostitutes or whether they were operating under the assumption that their behavior was condoned.
She said the agents did not try to hide what they were doing, writing their real names and the real names of the women in the hotel’s registry.
“Do you think the fact that they registered the women, they followed the rules of the hotel and … used their real names, and used the women’s real names, suggests that they were not really worried about being caught?” asked Collins, the ranking member on the committee.
Sullivan stressed that he was not sure why the agents behaved in such a “reckless” way, but that it was not because there was any tolerance for hiring prostitutes. He emphasized that no sensitive security documents or equipment would have been in the rooms of the agents at the hotel.
Collins pointed to the fact that, of the nearly dozen agents who were caught up in the scandal, they acted in several groups separate from one another. The independent actions are another indication that the behavior was condoned, Collins said.
Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) told Sullivan the panel was planning to continue conducting its own investigation of the incident and the culture of the agency.
Sullivan said the Secret Service is conducting its own top-to-bottom review. The agency is planning to inspect its hiring, accountability, disciplinary, and security clearance protocols, while comparing them to the military and other law enforcement organizations in an attempt to strengthen any weaknesses within the Secret Service.
Several senators focused on an alarming statistic that Sullivan revealed at the hearing, suggesting that there may be a “code of silence” among agents that does not encourage reporting wrongdoing.
The Secret Service head said that in a government-wide survey conducted last year, only 60 percent of the agency’s employees said they would “report an incident of unethical behavior,” while 40 percent said they would not.
“Forty percent is a very high percentage that wouldn't report,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
“When you hear the story of what's done on the road stays on the road, my guess is within the service, there's a pretty high level of esprit de corps, possibly even a code of silence.”
Sullivan said he thought news of the Colombia incident would have come to light even if a prostitute hadn’t come forward because someone at the agency would have raised the issue with his or her superiors.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general was also on hand Wednesday to update lawmakers about the progress of his independent investigation of the Colombia incident.
The IG, Charles Edwards, said the first part of his three-pronged report will be complete by July and would detail the adequacy of the Secret Service’s immediate response to the event, and the measures it has taken since.
Since launching the investigation into the Colombia incident, Edwards said the IG’s office has received many tips from an Internet-based hotline.
One tip that the IG is now investigating involved five Secret Service agents in Utah, who were accused of “partying with alcohol with underage females in their hotel rooms while on assignment at the 2002 Olympics,” according to the IG’s response to questions sent privately by the committee.
"This is of significance as we try to determine whether there was further evidence of the kind of misconduct that occurred at Cartagena," Lieberman said of the 2002 incident.
— This story was updated at 4:41 p.m.