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Agents' party before JFK slaying revisited

| Thursday, April 26, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

An investigation into alleged Secret Service misconduct should go deep into the past, but perhaps not as far back as alleged drinking by agents hours before the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, a congressional oversight committee member said on Thursday.

The investigation should include agents who served under George W. Bush, Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Williamsport told the Tribune-Review.

Marino, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security that oversees the Secret Service, spoke as reports surfaced that an unfolding prostitution scandal ensnaring a dozen agents and a dozen military members of President Obama's advance team might not be limited to Cartagena, Colombia.

KIRO-TV in Seattle, citing unnamed sources, reported alleged misconduct by agents at a San Salvador strip club prior to Obama's visit to El Salvador in March 2011. The Secret Service and Pentagon said they are looking into the unconfirmed report.

Alleged misconduct by one of the nation's most honored law enforcement institutions has some history, stretching to the night before an assassin shot Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Marino said any agency review might go back that far if it's "100 percent relevant."

Then-syndicated columnist and muckraker Drew Pearson reported in late 1963: "Six Secret Service men charged with protecting the President were in the Fort Worth Press Club the early morning of Nov. 22, some of them remaining until nearly three o'clock. ... They were drinking. One of them was reported to have been intoxicated."

While the agents drank, Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, slept in the nearby Texas Hotel. They had a busy day planned, with motorcades in Fort Worth and Dallas.

According to Pearson, press club President Calvin Sutton said he decided to keep the facility open past closing time to accommodate the traveling press corps and others. "We shouldn't have done it, but we did," he told Pearson. He said he was surprised when Secret Service agents arrived.

After the press club closed, agents "wanted to know where 'The Cellar' was, and I told them. But I did my best to discourage them," Sutton reportedly told Pearson. The Cellar, Pearson said, was an after-hours "beatnik" spot that officials said was not licensed to serve alcohol.

After Pearson's report, Secret Service boss James Rowley started an investigation. In some respects, Rowley found, Pearson understated the affair. Rowley learned that nine, not six, "special agents of the White House Detail were in the Press Club at various times and departed at various times up to 2:00 a.m." He said they drank only modestly, and the investigation found no evidence that any became intoxicated.

"The amount of beer and liquor consumed by any of them did not exceed one and a half mixed drinks or, in one case, three glasses of beer," he reported.

During the night, 10 agents made their way to The Cellar, where Rowley reported they consumed "coffee or fruit drinks." The club owner said some agents remained until 4:30 to 5 in the morning before the assassination. Kennedy was shot shortly after noon.

The late author William Manchester, in his book "Death of a President," reported: "Fellow drinkers during those early-morning hours included four agents who were to ride in the President's follow-up car in Dallas and whose alertness was vital to his safety."

Others, he said, included agents assigned to guard the president's hotel room door who became bored and joined the party.

Pearson's expose said "obviously, men who have been drinking until nearly three a.m. are in no condition to be trigger-alert or in the best physical shape to protect anyone."

Rowley told the Warren Commission, which investigated Kennedy's death, that Secret Service rules prohibited "the use of intoxicating liquor of any kind, including beer and wine, by members of the White House detail and special agents cooperating with them or by special agents on similar assignments, while they are in a travel status."

Unlike the agents on Obama's detail in Cartagena, the Kennedy crew escaped largely unscathed after Rowley's investigation and stern words from the commission.

Marino said he hopes any review by the House Homeland Security Committee would not turn into "a political witch hunt."

Agents he has worked with were "top notch," Marino said, though there's "always going to be someone who makes the rest of the group look bad." Still, Marino said, there should be no coverup, and any supervisor "who knew or should have known" about wrongdoing should be fired.

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