ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The message today from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano: President Obama was never put at risk by the misconduct of Secret Service employees ahead of his visit to Colombia this month. Napolitano's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee gave senators their first chance to publicly question an administration official about this scandal.
But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, one, big question remains unanswered.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Was this incident involving heavy drinking and prostitutes a symptom of a larger discipline problem in the Secret Service, or a one-off mistake? That's what a lot of senators wanted to know, including South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The likelihood that this was the first and only time that such behavior occurred - do you think that's great or not so great?
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, I think part of our investigation is confirming that this was an aberration - or not.
KEITH: Graham didn't stop there, pushing Napolitano further.
GRAHAM: We're lucky to have found out about this. 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 have never known about this.
KEITH: Graham said he thinks there's a discipline problem. Napolitano said so far, the investigation hasn't turned up evidence of other similar incidents.
NAPOLITANO: Over the past two and a half years, the Secret Service Office of Professional Responsibility has not received any such complaint.
KEITH: And over that time, she said the Secret Service has provided protection on more than 900 foreign trips, and 13,000 domestic trips.
NAPOLITANO: We are going to get to the bottom of this. We are going to make sure that standards and training, if they need to be tightened up, are tightened. And we have moved with great speed to deal, in a disciplinary fashion, with the 12 agents involved.
KEITH: By last night, eight Secret Service employees had either decided to resign or retire. Three had been cleared of serious misconduct, and the agency was moving to permanently revoke the security clearance of another. A separate investigation is ongoing into a dozen military personnel also implicated. When it came to another question on many senators' minds - was the president put in danger because Secret Service employees brought prostitutes back to their rooms? - Napolitano's answer was emphatic.
NAPOLITANO: The answer is no. There was no risk to the president.
KEITH: Sensitive information wasn't compromised, either, she said. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, expressed concerns about what could have happened.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: I'm not saying that it did, but it seems like it's the kind of behavior that would render an agent vulnerable to blackmail and influence, if criminal networks and foreign intelligence services were aware of it. And that is a potential avenue for compromise of the president's security.
KEITH: Napolitano said it didn't happen.
NAPOLITANO: The first question I posed to the director was, was there any breach to the president's security in this instance? And the answer was no.
WHITEHOUSE: But there was a risk of breach along those lines if those connections existed, correct?
NAPOLITANO: There may be a risk, and that's why this behavior cannot be tolerated.
KEITH: The director she mentions is Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, who she says has her full confidence - and that of the president. Elijah Cummings is a Democratic member of the House Oversight Committee from Maryland, who's been getting regular briefings from the director. He says Sullivan is taking a hard look at the agency's rules of conduct, and is even considering instituting a curfew.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: I mean, if you've got football players and baseball players who are subjected to a curfew, I think it just makes sense that if people are going to be guarding the leader of the free world, that they be on their P's and Q's.
KEITH: And if there had been a curfew, he says this scandal might have been avoided. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.