The Secret Service was engulfed in a sex scandal on Saturday after a dozen agents assigned to President Barack Obama's trip to Colombia were sent home amid reports of them using prostitutes.
Five US military personnel are also being investigated for misconduct said to have taken place at the same hotel where the Secret Service staff were staying in the resort city of Cartagena, and have been confined to barracks.
Obama arrived late Friday in the Caribbean port of Cartagena, which is under security lockdown for the Summit of the Americas, but the allegations against the Secret Service and military completely overshadowed the gathering of regional leaders.
"There have been allegations of misconduct made against Secret Service personnel in Cartagena, Colombia prior to the president's trip," Secret Service special agent in charge Edwin Donovan said in a statement late Friday.
"Because of this, those personnel are being relieved of their assignments, returned to their place of duty, and are being replaced by other Secret Service personnel."
Donovan did not specify the allegations made, but at least one agent had been involved with prostitutes in Cartagena, The Washington Post said, quoting Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
Ronald Kessler, a former Post reporter and author of a book on the Secret Service, told CNN the scandal erupted when one of the agents "did not pay one of the prostitutes, and she complained to the police."
Kessler said 12 agents were being accused of involvement, from interfering with an investigation to actually participating in the alleged misconduct, according to CNN.
Donovan stressed on Friday the Secret Service staffing changes "will not affect the comprehensive security plan that has been prepared in advance of the president's trip."
"This entire matter has been turned over to our Office of Professional Responsibility, which serves as the agency's internal affairs component," he said, without confirming the number of agents sent home.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Saturday told reporters that Obama had full confidence in the Secret Service.
Shortly after, however, a statement released by the US military's Southern Command, tasked with planning and operations in Central and Southern America, said five of its staff had been linked to the misconduct claims in Cartagena.
Its commander, General Douglas Fraser, was quoted to be "disappointed by the entire incident and that this behavior is not in keeping with the professional standards expected of members of the United States military."
He went on to say that "after a thorough investigation, punishment, if appropriate, will take place," in accordance with military justice.
The revelations came as two small bombs exploded in the capital Bogota, near the US embassy, and another two in Cartagena, though no one was hurt and there was no damage.
The Secret Service, which employs some 3,200 agents and 1,300 uniformed police, has been in the spotlight for a number of notable incidents since Obama took office three years ago.
In late 2009 investigations were launched after an uninvited couple -- both aspiring reality TV stars -- gatecrashed Obama's first state dinner at the White House, gaining access to the party and even getting photographed with the president.
The couple from Virginia, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, made headlines after attending the early part of the dinner honoring visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh despite lacking an invitation or Secret Service clearance.
In November last year an agent was charged with second-degree murder after an incident in Hawaii in November ahead of an APEC summit, The Washington Post reported, while another was charged with drunk driving last August while helping to arrange security for an Obama bus-trip in Iowa.
The Secret Service was created in 1865 to tackle currency counterfeiting, but it gained an expanded role to protect the president in 1901 after the assassination of president William McKinley. Its services were extended to presidential candidates after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. (AFP)
<관련 한글 기사>
美대통령 경호요원, '임무중 성매매' 파문
미주기구(OAS) 정상회의 참석차 남미 콜롬비아 순방에 나선 버락 오바마 미국 대통령의 경호를 담당하는 경호원들이 임무 중 성매매를 했다는 파문이 가라앉기는커녕 확대되는 추세다.
미 비밀경호국은 관련 요원들을 휴가 형식으로 정직시키고 본국에 송환조치했다.
특히 성매매가 이루어진 같은 호텔에서 수행원인 미군 5명도 성매매를 했다는 사실이 드러났다.
비밀경호국은 이번 사건과 관련해 관련 요원들을 직위 해제하고 휴가 상태로 본 국 송환 조치했다. 미 남부군사령부도 '부적절한 행위' 혐의를 받는 5명의 군인을 임무 해제하고, 콜롬비아 내 미군 막사에 연금한 상태다. 국방부는 또 이들에 대해 외부와의 접촉 금지령도 내렸다.
폴 모리세이 비밀경호국 차장은 본국 송환된 관련자 11명은 "행정 휴가 상태"라면서 "이는 정상적인 조치로 이번 파문과 관련한 전면 조사에 필요한 것"이라고 해명했다.
워싱턴 포스트 전문 기자 출신으로 비밀경호국 관련 저서의 저자인 로널드 캐슬러는 CNN에 출연해 이번 파문은 자신과 성매매한 콜롬비아 성매매 여성이 "화대를 받지 못한 데 대한 불만으로 경찰에 신고한 데서 빚어졌다"고 주장했다.
제이 카니 백악관 대변인도 기자회견에서 이번 파문에도 비밀경호국에 대한 오바마 대통령의 신뢰는 확고하다고 밝혔다.
더글러스 프레이저 남부군 사령관은 이번 파문과 관련한 성명을 통해 "이번 사건은 실망스러운 데다 관련 미군 5명의 행위는 미군으로서 가져야 하는 직업적 전문 성에 부합하지 않는 행위"라고 말했다.
앞서 에드 도너반 비밀경호국 대변인은 오바마 대통령이 OAS 정상회의 참석을 위해 콜롬비아 카르타헤나에 도착하기 전 현지에 나가 있던 경호요원들이 '부적절한 행위(misconduct)'를 했다는 주장이 나왔다고 13일(현지시각) 말했다.
도노번 대변인은 이들이 즉시 다른 요원들로 대체됐으며 본국 송환돼 업무에서 배제된 상태라고 밝혔다. 또 경호국의 내부 문제를 다루는 미 법무부 윤리감사실(OP R)에 공식 조사를 의뢰했다고 덧붙였다.
오바마 대통령은 13일 저녁에 카르타헤나에 도착해 미주기구 정상 만찬에 참여했으며, 14∼15일 이틀간 이들 정상과 회담했다. (연합뉴스)