Did White House Aides Try to Cover Up the Secret Service Prostitution Scandal?

The Obama administration pushes back against a story that implicates it in a pre-election prostitution scandal cover-up.

A Secret Service agent ducks rotor wash as Marine One lands to pick up US President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House May 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama is traveling to Chicago for the night where he will attend Democratic fundraisers.


At 10 p.m. Wednesday night, The Washington Post went live with the latest in Carol Leonnig's seemingly endless, iterative series on the foibles of the Secret Service. But there was a twist: the new story, a close and richly sourced look at the 2012 Cartagena prostitution scandal, revealed that "senior White House aides were given information at the time suggesting that a prostitute was an overnight guest in the hotel room of a presidential advance-team member."

David Nakamura sharing a byline with Leonnig and four reporters being credited for contributions—two of that group having traveled to Cartagena to find the telltale prostitute—pulled together a trove of information, though, from the wreckage they've pulled together, it's genuinely tough to find a lede. Among the options:

— Jonathan Dach, then "a volunteer who helped coordinate drivers for the White House travel office," joined the Cartagena junket in April 2012. Shortly into the subsequent investigation, the then-director of the Secret Service indicated to the then-White House counsel that there was "evidence indicating Dach registered a prostitute into his room at the Hilton Cartagena Hotel shortly after midnight on April 4." Dach, who denies this (through his attorney), happened to be the son of Wal-Mart lobbyist and Obama donor Leslie Dach; he also happens to work for the State Department, at—wait for it—the Secretary's Office on Global Women's Issues.

— According to "three people with knowledge of his statement," the lead investigator for the DHS IG's office said "we were directed at the time... to delay the report of the investigation until after the 2012 election."

— That investigator, David Nieland, also "told Senate staffers that his superiors demanded that he remove from an official report references to the evidence pointing to the White House team member."

The White House's pushback, which emerged quickly on Wednesday night, consists of portraying the story as old news dressed in glitter and neon lights. Point by point—and again, I'm explaining the spin, not endorsing it:

— Dach, despite the minute details produced by the Post, did nothing wrong. "The White House conducted an internal review that did not identify any inappropriate behavior on the part of the White House advance team," Schultz said tonight in a statement. "At the time, White House Counsel requested the Secret Service send over any information related to White House personnel engaging in inappropriate conduct–and indeed that is how the hotel log emerged, an analogous version of which proved to falsely implicate another agent who was subsequently cleared. And of course there was no White House interference with an IG investigation."

This doesn't quite contradict Leonnig/Nakamura et al., as they report that the administration judged it a waste of resources to probe Dach, a "volunteer" (who was reimbursed for expenses) in a country where prostitution was legal.

— The report was not concealed until after the 2012 election. This is not false, exactly. On September 21 of that year, Politico's Seung Min Kim obtained an IG letter about the investigation which contained "hints that a person from the White House advance team may also have been involved." On October 18, with early voting already underway in some states, ABC News's Jake Tapper (now at CNN) reported on the details of the report as they pertained to the Secret Service. 

The problem, for the White House, is that Leonnig et al. acknowledged this already—they link to some of the 2012 leaks in the piece. They just have sources saying that the Dach connection was not pursued because an IG was told to drop it, and the administration decided to walk it off.

— Nieland lied. That's the White House's story, the evidence for which is contained on page 10 of a Senate investigation of problems within the office of the DHS's inspector general.

The lead investigator of the OIG’s USSS investigation stated to the Subcommittee that he had informed the INV review team that he had “...been asked to delete derogatory information in the ROI. I told [the INV review team] I had concerns with this direction. I reiterated to [the INV review team] at this time that the DHS OIG was sitting on information that could influence an election.”

The memorandum and supporting interview summaries prepared by the INV review team (based on their notes and recollections) do not reflect that those statements were made by the lead investigator. According to the memorandum and supporting summaries, the lead investigator said, “I wouldn’t put [my] name on [the ROI], if there were omissions” and, in a separate interview with them, that he had not been alleging a cover-up. 

"Of course there was no White House interference with an IG investigation," said Schultz. "As the bipartisan Senate investigation found—in a report issued from Senators Claire McCaskill and Ron Johnson—changes made to the IG Report were ‘part of the ordinary process of editing the report’ and found that allegations that changes were made because they were embarrassing could not be substantiated."

That's the White House's case. What's the implication? It's right there in the Post story—that Secret Service agents say "they are angry at the White House’s public insistence that none of its team members were involved and its private decision to not fully investigate one of its own." In the space of two years, accelerated in the last two weeks, they've become national jokes. Could some of them be throwing up dust to damage the White House? That's what critics of the story want you to ponder.

In the meantime, in an election season that's become a competition in who can denounce the White House at the highest volume, the question is: Where to start? With the donor's kid who managed to tumble upward into a great job? With the allegation that the White House tried to cover up a story? (On Twitter, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor has already described as "absurd" the idea that the White House would risk everything to cover up for an advance volunteer.) With well-earned trolling about how the White House could blow off questions about whether an advance guy bought prostitutes, then win an election on the right side of the "war on women?"

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.