WASHINGTON – Three more Secret Service employees have been forced out of the government, bringing to nine the number of people who have lost their jobs in the prostitution scandal roiling the agency. President Barack Obama said the employees at the center of the sordid episode were "knuckleheads," but not representative of the agency that protects his family in the glare of public life.
Two employees have resigned and a third is having his national security clearance revoked, the Secret Service said Tuesday. The employee whose clearance is being revoked can appeal the decision.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said one of the resigning agents stayed at the Hilton hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, where Obama stayed for the Summit of Americas. The others stayed at the nearby Hotel Caribe.
Two others have been cleared of serious misconduct. Last week, six employees, including two supervisors, were forced out and another was cleared of serious wrongdoing. The three who were cleared will still face "appropriate administrative action", the Secret Service said.
The scandal erupted after a fight over payment between a Colombian prostitute and a Secret Service employee spilled into the hallway of the Hotel Caribe. A dozen military personnel have also been implicated and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week they have had their security clearances suspended.
Obama acknowledged Tuesday that the scandal was "a little distracting" and pressed for perspective.
"These guys are incredible. They protect me. They protect Michelle. They protect the girls. They protect our officials all around the world," the president said on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
"A couple of knuckleheads shouldn't detract from what they do," Obama added. "What these guys were thinking, I don't know. That's why they're not there anymore."
Even as Obama spoke, officials on Capitol Hill were probing for any misconduct in the agency in the past decade and girding for the first public accounting of the incident that embarrassed the Obama administration.
A dozen Secret Service personnel and another 12 military enlistees preparing for Obama's visit to Cartagena have been under investigation for cavorting with prostitutes.
As many as 20 prostitutes were involved with the group, officials say, and none are believed to be underage.
Local law enforcement intervened on the prostitute's behalf during the fight over payment. Paid sex is legal in Cartagena but violates codes of conduct for U.S. personnel who were working there.
In a similar but unrelated incident, Panetta said Tuesday that three Marines on a U.S. Embassy security team and one embassy staff member were punished for allegedly pushing a prostitute out of a car in Brasilia, Brazil, last year after a dispute over payment. Panetta, speaking in Brasilia, said he had "no tolerance for that kind of conduct."
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an investigation, said in the wake of the Cartagena scandal the woman involved in the Brasilia incident has hired a lawyer and is suing the embassy. The official said the woman broke her collarbone when she was pushed from the car.
The military investigation into the Cartagena incident is continuing.
The Colombia scandal has been widely denounced by official Washington, but it's a delicate political matter in an election year with the presidency and congressional majorities at stake. All sides have praised Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan's swift action and thorough investigation, in part because he's spent significant time keeping key lawmakers in the loop. Pentagon officials too are investigating and are expected to brief Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and ranking Republican John McCain on Wednesday.
Even so, at least four congressional committees are investigating on the grounds that letting foreign nationals near U.S. personnel with sensitive information about the president's visit is a national security risk. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to face tough questions Wednesday from the Senate Judiciary Committee on such matters as whether the agency's inspector general has launched an independent investigation.
Another Senate panel is looking for a pattern of misconduct. Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters Tuesday that he'll hold hearings on the service's culture and whether clear rules exist on how agents should behave when they are off duty but on assignment.
"I mean you think they wouldn't need that but maybe they do," Lieberman said. He added that his investigators are taking a longer view and beginning to follow up on tips that "whistle-blower people" have called in. He declined to provide details.
"I want to ask questions about whether there is any other evidence of misconduct by Secret Service agents in the last five or 10 years," Lieberman said. "If so what was done about it, could something have been done to have prevented what happened in Cartagena? And now that it has happened, what do they intend to do?"
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Donna Cassata in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.