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Prostitute scandal posed no risk to Obama: Napolitano

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President Barack Obama walks to greet well-wishers, with Secret Service agents at his side, upon his arrival in Tampa, Florida April 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
President Barack Obama walks to greet well-wishers, with Secret Service agents at his side, upon his arrival in Tampa, Florida April 13, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's safety was not jeopardized by the actions of Secret Service agents who brought prostitutes back to a Colombia hotel on the eve of his arrival, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured a Senate committee Wednesday.

"There was no risk to the president," she told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in the first public questioning of an administration official since the scandal broke as Obama prepared to visit Cartagena for a summit.

Napolitano said that a review of Secret Service records showed no similar episodes of misconduct that might have warned of brewing problems at the agency. The Office of Professional Responsibility has looked back at two and half years of complaints and found "there was nothing in the record to suggest that this behavior would happen," she said.

The Secret Service, which is attached to the Department of Homeland Security, acted swiftly to review all 12 Secret Service employees who were involved in the incident. Eight are now gone, three were cleared of serious misconduct, and one is in the process of having his security clearance revoked - meaning the agent would be prevented from working at the agency.

Napolitano's testimony came as key senators described their Wednesday briefings from Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, and Brigadier General Richard Gross, legal advisor to the Joint Staff, about the involvement of a dozen military personnel in the scandal. None of the soldiers have been publicly identified.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that the briefing raised questions about whether the "chain of command" at the Southern Command should have acted sooner to pull out soldiers involved in the scandal.

Levin said that some military members assigned to the detail were known to have violated curfew before Obama's arrival, but "the decision was made nonetheless to let those members of the military continue with the mission."

Senator John McCain, the panel's ranking Republican, said the briefers provided "appallingly" little information about the incident. But Levin noted that the investigation was ongoing and expected to be completed by the end of next week.

In her remarks, Napolitano described the incident as unusual in a prestigious agency that during the years reviewed, provided protection to government officials in over 900 foreign and 13,000 domestic trips.

"It really was a huge disappointment to the men and women of the Secret Service to begin with, who uphold very high standards and who feel their own reputations are now besmirched by the actions of a few," she said.

But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pressed on whether there had been previous incidents.

"The only reason I suggest that we need to maybe look a little harder is because we're lucky to have found out about this," he said. "If there hadn't been an argument between one of the agents and I guess a prostitute, for lack of a better word, about money, we'd probably never have known about this."

Obama on Tuesday called the Secret Service agents involved in the scandal a "couple of knuckleheads" and had previously said he would be "angry" if the accusations proved true.

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Vicki Allen, Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara)

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