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White House defends Secret Service chief anew

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A Secret Service agent stands near then presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally in Norfolk, Va. The Secret Service forced out three agents April 18, 2012 in a prostitution scandal that has embarrassed President Obama. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) A Secret Service agent stands near then presidential candidate Barack Obama at a rally in Norfolk, Va. The Secret Service forced out three agents April 18, 2012 in a prostitution scandal that has embarrassed President Obama. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top lawmaker briefed on the investigation into a Secret Service prostitution scandal predicted more firings would follow the forced ouster of three agency employees.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw more dismissals and more being forced out sooner rather than later," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Thursday. King is being updated on the investigation by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.

The Secret Service is moving quickly to quell the scandal that erupted late last week, when at least some of 11 agency employees implicated in the incident brought

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House expressed renewed confidence Thursday in the director of the Secret Service in the midst of a sordid prostitution scandal that has threatened to become a serious political distraction in an election year. A key lawmaker who oversees the Secret Service predicted more firings there soon.

President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Jay Carney, noted that some Secret Service employees involved have already lost their jobs, just days into the government's formal investigation of the incident last weekend in Columbia, where Obama was to attend a summit meeting. Carney also said the president's security in Cartagena was never compromised, and he asked for patience as official investigations continue.

"Perhaps it would be in the interests of a complete and thorough and fair investigation not to make determinations about the conclusions of an investigation before they've even been reached," Carney said. "That's the president's position."

The scandal arose ahead of the Summit of the Americas when at least some of 11 Secret Service employees brought prostitutes back to their Cartagena hotel. The agency has moved quickly to try to quell the embarrassing episode, forcing out three employees so far, including two supervisors. The supervisors were in the agency's uniformed division; one is a sergeant, according to a person familiar with Secret Service operations who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

A third employee has resigned. The employees under investigation include members of the agency's "jump teams," which are sent to sites to set up security in advance of the president's arrival. Others are on counter-assault and counter-sniper teams. The majority of the group is believed to be based in the Washington area.

Eight men remain suspended and have had their top-secret security clearances lifted. The scandal also involves about 10 military personnel and as many as 20 Colombian women.

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Thursday that more firings could be imminent.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you saw more dismissals and more being forced out sooner rather than later," said King, who is being updated on the investigation by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. "You may see a few more today or tomorrow."

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thought more people would be fired within "just a few days."

"'I expect there will be more, but that's what the investigation is all about."

Three U.S. military officials have said the military personnel include five Army Green Berets, two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.

An Air Force colonel and a military lawyer have gone to Colombia as part of the military investigation. The Secret Service probe has included interviews with the employees and hotel staff.

King said investigators in Colombia have not been able to interview the women.

A 24-year-old prostitute told The New York Times this week that the scandal became public after she fought over payment with one of the Secret Service employees, and it spilled out into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe on April 12.

Jose Pena, a Cartagena taxi driver, told The Associated Press that he picked up the woman after the dispute. She said she left the hotel, where other members of the security detail and the White House press corps were staying, after she was paid $225.

In Cartagena this week, sex workers and hotel staff were reluctant to speak about the incident, which has become an election year embarrassment in the U.S.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia, and Cartagena thrives on the sex tourism industry, Mayor Campo Elias readily acknowledged, with hundreds of prostitutes available on any given night throughout the colonial walled city.

In Washington, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who said she had not been briefed, called the incident "disgusting."

"There has to be an investigation to see how this could have happened, and those responsible should have to pay a price," Pelosi said. "But as with all these things, there are many people in the Secret Service who do their job responsibly, and we can't paint everyone with the same brush. But nonetheless, those people who were responsible have brought disgrace and it's disgusting."

Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, called for leadership changes at the Secret Service.

"I mentioned before, and I can't get a better analogy than baseball. You get three strikes," Forbes said. "They went over their budgets, they couldn't control their budget. They couldn't control who got in the White House. And now we're talking about just absolutely a fundamental principle of security planning — you don't let the prostitutes in."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada suggested the problem lies with the judgment of those involved.

"Understand this, there is not a committee hearing that's going to take the place or stop people from being stupid. There is not a bill we can pass to cause people to have common sense," Reid said. "Think about this. People that are here to protect the president, they go to Colombia and have a fight with a prostitute over how much she should be paid. That's either very stupid or a total lack of common sense."

Another Republican lawmaker said Thursday that the Secret Service incident raised questions about whether Obama was capably leading the government.

"I don't sense that this president has shown that kind of managerial leadership," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

During his daily briefing, Carney shot back: "That sounds very much like a lawmaker attempting to politicize something that is not at all political."

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Jim Abrams, Julie Pace, Larry Margasak and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md., Denise Lavoie in Boston and Frank Bajak in Cartagena, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

prostitutes back to their hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, where they were setting up security for a visit by President Barack Obama.

So far, three people involved have lost their jobs. The service said Wednesday that one supervisor was allowed to retire, and another will be fired for cause. A third employee, who was not a supervisor, has resigned.

The two supervisors are in the agency's uniformed division; one is a sergeant, according to a person familiar with Secret Service operations and refused to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

The team under investigation includes members of the agency's "jump teams," which are sent to sites ahead of the president's arrival to set up security. Others involved are on counter-assault and counter-sniper teams. The majority of those involved are believed to be based in the Washington area.

Eight other Secret Service employees remain on administrative leave and have had their top-secret clearance revoked.

Sullivan has offered the agents under investigation the opportunity to take a polygraph test, though the agents can refuse.

The scandal also involved about 10 military service members and as many as 20 women.

King said agency investigators in Colombia still have not been able to talk to the women who were brought back to the hotel. The investigators do, however, have the names, addresses and pictures of the women, said King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the Secret Service.

In Washington and Colombia, separate U.S. government investigations are already under way. In addition to the Secret Service investigators in Colombia, King said he has assigned four congressional investigators to the probe. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sought details of the Secret Service investigation, including the disciplinary histories of the agents involved.

In a letter to the Secret Service director, Issa and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's senior Democrat, said the agents "brought foreign nationals in contact with sensitive security information." A potential security breach has been among the concerns raised by members of Congress.

King said Sullivan took employment action against "the three people he believes the case was clearest against." The lawmaker said the agency was "reasonably confident" that drug use was not an issue with the three agents who have been forced out. But he said Secret Service investigators would continue to look into whether drugs played a role in the incident as they talk to the other eight agents involved.

Hotel workers told Secret Service investigators they found no drugs or drug paraphernalia in the rooms where the agents stayed, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The person was not authorized to discuss the probe publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said news of the three agents leaving the Secret Service was a positive development.

"I've always said that if heads don't roll, the culture in a federal agency will never change," the Iowa lawmaker said in a statement.

The episode took a sharp political turn Wednesday when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he would fire the agents involved.

Romney told radio host Laura Ingraham that he'd "clean house" at the Secret Service.

"The right thing to do is to remove people who have violated the public trust and have put their play time and their personal interests ahead of the interests of the nation," Romney said.

While Romney suggested to Ingraham that a leadership problem led to the scandal, he told a Columbus, Ohio, radio station earlier that he has confidence in Sullivan, the head of the agency.

At least 10 military personnel who were staying at the same hotel are also being investigated for misconduct. The troops are suspected of violating curfews set by their commanders.

Two U.S. military officials have said they include five Army Green Berets. One of the officials said the group also includes two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way.

The Secret Service's Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles that agency's internal affairs, is investigating, and the Homeland Security Department's inspector general also has been notified.

Sullivan, who this week has briefed lawmakers behind closed doors, said he has referred to the case to an independent government investigator.

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Julie Pace, Ken Thomas and Steve Peoples in Washington and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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