WASHINGTON — The widening Secret Service prostitution scandal has touched off a delicate dance in Washington.
From President Barack Obama on down, people are loath to criticize an agency whose employees are trained to take a bullet for others.
"The Secret Service, these guys are incredible. They protect me. They protect Michelle. They protect the girls," Obama said Tuesday on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." ''A couple of knuckleheads shouldn't detract from what they do."
Members of Congress pressing for the juicy stories risk reviving — or having revealed — some of their own.
Yet all parties claim to want the truth about the extent of sworn officers working for one of the nation's premier law enforcement agencies hiring Colombian sex workers ahead of President Barack Obama's visit there and whether national security may have been compromised.
Spinning the facts as they emerge poses more risk: The Secret Service and the military are supposed to be above politics, dedicated to protecting presidents, their families and the nation.
"Sure, it creates a problem for President Obama. It adds to the sense that Washington is broken. But if the Republicans try to make this a point in their arguments, they are making a big mistake," GOP strategist Karl Rove said on "Fox News Sunday."
A dozen Secret Service personnel and another 12 military enlistees preparing for Obama's visit to Cartagena are being investigated for cavorting with prostitutes. Six Secret Service agents have been let go over the incident, and on Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters his department has suspended the security clearances of the military personnel being investigated. As many as 20 prostitutes were involved with the group, officials say. None are believed to be underage.
The incident came to light after one of the prostitutes argued with a Secret Service agent over her payment in a hallway of the Caribe hotel. Local law enforcement intervened on the prostitute's behalf. Paid sex is legal in Cartagena, but violates codes of conduct for U.S. personnel who were working there.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan launched an investigation and requested an independent probe by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general. Sullivan ousted some of those implicated and, perhaps as importantly, he busily briefed key members of Congress who left no doubt they would hold public hearings should they find his investigation insufficient.
For now, there's no complaint about the swift pace of the fallout or Sullivan's thoroughness. But there's been much discretion, strategic question-asking and even notable silence from some members of Congress, uncharacteristic restraint in a tense election year sizzling with gender politics.
Obama has coolly urged a rigorous investigation and said that if the allegations prove true, he would be angry.
For any president, a Secret Service scandal creates discomfort. Members of the agency's elite protective service help the first family feel safe in the public glare.
It's a fairly intimate relationship, First Lady Michelle Obama told members of the Secret Service last year. The president, their daughters and she playfully argued at the dinner table over their favorite agents, she said.
"We love our detail," Mrs. Obama told the U.S. Secret Service employees in October. "For us, it's like having family around."
The Secret Service also shadows presidential candidates and their families. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney is said to be close to his detail. Aides have said Romney sometimes eats dinner in his hotel room instead of dining in public, which requires an entourage and more agents at work. Ordering in allows some agents to clock out.
But the former Massachusetts governor suggested a lack of leadership led to the scandal and left no doubt what he'd do if it had happened on his watch.
"I'd clean house," Romney told radio host Laura Ingraham. "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."
Among key Republicans on Capitol Hill, there was support for Sullivan and deference to his investigation — a recognition by some in Congress that the scandal needs no spinning and that any congressional action must have credibility with voters.
It's about national security, Republicans say. But there's no question the hubbub also is about illicit sex, a topic not eagerly discussed by a long list of lawmakers who have transgressed in that department.
Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, for example, admitted in 2007 to a "serious sin" after his telephone number had appeared in the records of a Washington-area escort service that authorities said was a front for prostitution. Vitter, a member of the Armed Services Committee, won re-election in 2010.
Asked how much responsibility Obama should be taking for the scandal, House Speaker John Boehner demurred, saying he's interested right now in finding out just what happened in Cartagena. A pair of aggressive House chairmen have deferred to the Secret Service probe, promised to monitor it and left open the prospect of launching their own highly public investigations.
Across the Capitol, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of his chamber's most dogged investigators, made public a letter to Sullivan that implied he believed more U.S. personnel in Cartagena that week were worth investigating. As examples, Grassley named the White House Communications Agency and the president's advance staff. Was Sullivan investigating them?
"If not, why not?" Grassley wrote.
A 12th member of the military, assigned to the WHCA, was implicated in the scandal and on Monday was relieved of his duties at the White House. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, confirmed that the White House counsel had done his own investigation and ruled out any misconduct among White House employees who helped arrange Obama's trip.1 comment on this story
Distancing the White House from the scandal, Carney said the internal investigation was conducted out of an abundance of caution and not as the result of evidence of misconduct. And he made clear, over and over again, that WHCA, despite its name, is a military unit and not a White House one.
The gender politics that have infused every phase of the 2012 election make the issue especially sensitive.
"I can't help but wonder if there'd been more women as part of that detail if this ever would have happened," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Sunday on ABC News' "This Week."