WASHINGTON – After two weeks of disturbing revelations about a tawdry prostitution scandal, the Secret Service and its supporters are circling the wagons to restore the "secret" part of its mission.
Retired agents have been instructed to stop talking to reporters. Secret Service agents are dismantling Facebook accounts, hanging up on reporters and notifying headquarters — even calling police — when journalists knock on their doors at home for interviews about the investigation.
"What purpose do these revelations, true or exaggerated, serve? What ever happened to one's pride in being discreet and keeping a confidence?" asked the president of the Association of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service, Pete Cavicchia, in an email to members. Cavicchia, head of a New York-based security and investigations firm, praised retired agents who declined interviews, urged others to "exercise the proper caution" and added, "We as an organization and individually do not have to add to the damage and speculation at this time."
Cavicchia said Monday that the email speaks for itself.
The scandal and what it's revealed about the culture inside the Secret Service have been a shock to an agency that is famously discreet. More than a dozen Secret Service agents contacted by The Associated Press have abruptly hung up or declined to return multiple messages to discuss their agency and former coworkers. One reported it to headquarters when an AP reporter visited his home in the evening; some retired officials who were interviewed quickly notified headquarters about what questions reporters were asking.
A police officer came to the Annapolis, Md., home of Greg Stokes — one of the employees who already has lost his job in the scandal — and directed an AP reporter to leave his property. At the home in Virginia of another employee who also lost his job, David Chaney, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office parked a patrol car — sometimes two of them. A deputy reprimanded reporters who came to the front door.
Chaney made his Facebook account inaccessible after he was identified as one of the officers involved, but not before reporters found it. Chaney joked on the account about his work with former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin while he was protecting her in 2008. The AP published a photograph it took of Chaney working in Palin's protective detail in October 2008 during a campaign rally in Carson, Calif.
A former agent, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to protect relationships with current agents, said senior officials have kept a tight rein on information about the continuing investigation about what happened in Colombia.
The silence shouldn't be surprising for an agency whose job involves keeping secrets, said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a former general counsel for the House Committee on Homeland Security who is now a partner with a Washington consulting firm. "It's a discreet organization. That's part of its mission," she said. "If you are dealing with the Secret Service or any type of intelligence agency you are going to see the same kind of response."
In Washington, where Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan has briefed members of Congress and President Barack Obama about the investigation, the Secret Service has issued only limited public statements since the April 12 incident, which implicated a dozen agents, officers and supervisors and 12 other U.S. military personnel in a night of heavy drinking in Cartagena, Colombia, before Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas. Some were accused of bringing prostitutes back to their hotel rooms.
The Secret Service already has forced eight employees from their jobs and was seeking to revoke the security clearance of another employee, which would effectively force him to resign. Three others have been cleared of serious wrongdoing. The military was conducting its own, separate investigation but canceled the security clearances of all 12 enlisted personnel.
The internal investigation is continuing. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General has also launched its own review, which could take as long as a year, according to a congressional staffer briefed on the investigation. The staffer spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Senators Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Maine Republican Susan Collins, who lead the Senate Homeland Security Committee, are also expected to ask Sullivan for specific details related to agency rules and regulations on conduct and past reports of misconduct.
A spokesman for the Secret Service, Edwin Donovan, said he was not familiar with instructions to former agents not to agree to interviews with reporters. Donovan said longstanding rules prohibit current employees from speaking with reporters unless it's authorized by supervisors or the public affairs office in Washington.
Cavicchia said the April 16 email was nothing more than a reminder to let "cooler heads" prevail when thinking about discussing the agency's inner workings or discussing current or former "protectees."
More secrets won't remain that way for long. Congressional hearings are expected to start within weeks. This week, lawmakers are expecting answers to dozens of detailed questions they submitted about the scandal. Most important, according to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., are assurances that the women in Colombia were not associated with narcotics or terror groups or a foreign government.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Sarah Breitenbach in Annapolis, Md., contributed to this report.
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