SEOUL – Two U.S. Secret Service employees in South Korea for President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia this week were involved in conduct that ended in a confrontation with South Korean citizens and have returned to the United States, according to a Secret Service official familiar with the incident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement that an incident occurred while the employees were not on duty, and that it “may constitute potential policy violation.” The employees have been put on administrative leave, he said.
“We have strict protocols and policies for all our employees, and we hold ourselves to the highest professional standards,” Guglielmi said. He added there has been no impact on Biden’s trip, during which the president will meet with the leaders of South Korea and Japan to discuss how to counter China’s influence.
The official familiar with the incident said the employees involved are an agent and a tactical security specialist. Both are sworn law enforcement officers with badges and firearms, and they arrived in Seoul ahead of Biden to coordinate with his protective detail.
The two Secret Service employees had gone out to a dinner with a larger group, and then went barhopping before returning to their hotel in a taxi, the official said. One of the employees went to his room; the other, the official said, got into an argument with the taxi driver and two Korean citizens who apparently were trying to enter the vehicle. The precise nature of the dispute could not be learned.
Hotel security officers then got involved, and police were summoned to investigate a possible assault, the official said. The Secret Service officer was allowed to return to his room, but he was questioned by local police later that morning.
The official said no one involved in the incident was detained, arrested or criminally charged, despite earlier reports to the contrary in the South Korean media. The officers were sent back to the U.S., departing South Korea two hours before Biden arrived.
Biden’s trip is his first visit to Asia as president. He and his top foreign policy advisers have spent the last few months dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Biden hopes to use this trip to reiterate his commitment to the countries in the Indo-Pacific region and to restate his view that China remains the top geopolitical rival to the world’s democracies.
The incident with the Secret Service in Seoul comes roughly 10 years after the agency suffered what was considered by many its most humiliating episode and ethical lapse, when more than a dozen Secret Service agents were shipped home from a trip to Colombia by President Barack Obama because they had been caught drinking and consorting with prostitutes in advance of the president’s arrival.
Several agents were pressured to resign following the incident, and the Service instituted stricter regulations for drinking while on presidential and other trips, for example prohibiting any drinking of alcohol 10 hours or less before a work assignment.
Other damaging episodes included an incident in 2014 when a wounded veteran was able to jump the White House fence and get past dozens of armed Secret Service officers and into the executive mansion; and the investigation of an officer last year after she posted comments on Facebook accusing lawmakers who formalized Biden’s win of treason.
In recent years, the Secret Service has also faced turmoil of a different sort, as President Donald Trump held large campaign-style rallies during the pandemic, often in states that had significant outbreaks of the coronavirus, exposing agents to the risk of infection.
The agency’s leaders say the Secret Service has righted itself and adheres to high professional standards. But some current and former agents have said a damaging culture persists, with agents treating foreign trips as perks of a highly demanding job and supervisors sometimes taking a “boys will be boys” attitude toward misconduct.
Last month, agency leaders were forced to downplay the risk to national security after four Secret Service employees – including an agent assigned to protect first lady Jill Biden – were allegedly hoodwinked by two men impersonating federal agents, who plied them with gifts. The agency told congressional committees that the severity of the breach was overblown, but some former Secret Service officials said they were concerned it revealed a major vulnerability.
Attorneys for the two men – Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 35 – have denied any scheme to infiltrate the Secret Service, as prosecutors contend. They have been on home detention since a federal judge released them last month saying prosecutors had “proffered zero evidence the defendants intended to infiltrate the Secret Service for a nefarious purpose, or even that they specifically targeted the Secret Service.”
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Kim reported from Seoul. The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.