Ousted Secret Service Agents May Ask For Jobs Back

Two Secret Service employees forced to resign for their role in the Cartagena prostitution scandal last month are fighting back. They say the agency had a permissive culture that overlooked similar behavior when agents were traveling.

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The director of the Secret Service assured a Senate committee, today, that a prostitution scandal involving his agents never compromised security. Mark Sullivan also apologized for behavior he said was reckless. It was Sullivan's first public testimony since news broke last month of Secret Service employees picking up prostitutes before a presidential visit to Colombia.

He insisted this was an isolated incident. But NPR's Tamara Keith reports, some on the committee weren't buying it.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There was a real tug-of-war throughout the hearing between Sullivan, who insisted there is no culture of bad behavior in his agency, and senators like committee chairman - Connecticut independent - Joe Lieberman.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: It is hard for many people - including me, I will admit - to believe that on one night in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, 12 Secret Service agents - there to protect the president - suddenly and spontaneously did something they or other agents had never done before.

KEITH: According to Sullivan and the senators, that night the Secret Service employees went out in small groups; visiting four different bars or strip clubs, getting drunk, and picking up prostitutes. Then they returned to their hotel and checked the prostitutes in for the night, as the hotel requires.

To Maine Republican Susan Collins, that was a clear sign of a greater problem.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: That suggests to me that the agents were so unconcerned about being caught, or about the impropriety of their actions, that they didn't even seek to conceal it.

KEITH: Sullivan insisted there isn't a permissive culture at the Secret Service. He said maybe the alcohol, and the environment, led these individuals to do some really dumb things.

MARK SULLIVAN: And I just can't explain why they would have done what they would do. But I will tell you that I do not believe they did it because they believed that this type of behavior would be tolerated. You know, we have a zero tolerance for this type of behavior. But I just - I cannot figure out why they did what they did.

KEITH: A Washington Post article published this morning says four of the Secret Service employees pushed out as a result of the scandal, are going to try and get their jobs back. The Post, citing unnamed sources, says the employees feel they're being scapegoated for behavior that has been, quote, "condoned under what they call an unwritten code," unquote.

Sullivan told senators he knows of only two employees who resigned and are now trying to return. He said the agency will move to permanently revoke their security clearances - and added, he'd like to know what the unnamed sources meant about an unwritten code.

SULLIVAN: We would like to know who, when, where and why, and names of people. And, you know, who are these people that are condoning it? And I will just tell you, sir, that is not the organization I know - that we would condone such behavior.

KEITH: But none of the senators, including Lieberman, seemed particularly satisfied.

LIEBERMAN: Were they asked whether they had engaged in similar conduct on other occasions?

SULLIVAN: Yes, sir, they were.

LIEBERMAN: And what was their answer?

SULLIVAN: Their answer was, they had not.

KEITH: Senators asked Sullivan to push harder on the culture question, as the investigation continues. At one point, Sen. Collins asked Sullivan hypothetically: If there were a systemic problem, what he would do to fix it. But he didn't bite.

SULLIVAN: You know, Senator, I'm hoping I can convince you that it isn't a cultural issue...

COLLINS: I know.

KEITH: Even so, Sullivan has issued new rules for traveling agents and officers, and says there will be much more ethics training in the future.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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