By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No one talks tougher against prostitution than the U.S. military.
Even in countries where prostitution is legal, military personnel violating a seven-year-old Department of Defense policy against paying for sex face up to a year in jail and dishonorable discharge if caught.
Officers and troops are taught about the links between human trafficking and prostitution. They also face country-specific instructions at bases like the U.S. installation in South Korea, where the policy describes prostitution as "cruel and demeaning."
But the involvement of U.S. military personnel and Secret Service agents in a raucous April outing with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, has underscored the gaps between the written policies and real-life experiences at military assignments around the world.
While the Secret Service has acted promptly and openly, even announcing Friday new ethics training and policies for traveling agents, the military has stayed mostly mum about how it is addressing possible violations of its prostitution rules.
After the Colombia scandal broke, initial attention focused on the dozen agents from the Secret Service, a civilian agency, for fear safety of the president or other officials might have been compromised. Eight agents have since left the service, one had his security clearance revoked and three were cleared.
"INCOMPATIBLE" WITH MILITARY VALUES
Last week, Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, criticized the Pentagon for offering too little information about the errant behavior of personnel who were helping prepare for a Cartagena summit visit by President Barack Obama.
Unlike the Secret Service agents, who were ordered to return home and were swiftly disciplined, the military personnel were initially confined to quarters in Colombia for what the Pentagon called "curfew violations." The Pentagon says those involved have had their security clearances suspended while an investigation proceeds.
Defense officials have said that moving the military personnel from Colombia before the summit there was ended would have been disruptive to their mission. The military service members had been sent to Cartagena as part of advance preparations for a summit that was attended by President Barack Obama.
Defense officials have also said they cannot speculate publicly about what disciplinary actions may be taken or discuss details of the allegations, saying this could jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.
But last week a Pentagon spokesman pledged to keep McCain and other lawmakers as informed as possible as the investigation proceeds.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican on the armed services committee, said he doubts that the military is enforcing its strict prostitution rules.
"The honest truth is probably no," said Graham, a former Air Force lawyer.
McCain said that while the Senate committee examined issues of sexual assault after the 1991 Tailhook scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse by Navy and Marine pilots, the panel has not been called upon to investigate the use of prostitutes. He rejected the notion that patronizing prostitutes is a fact of military life.
"I certainly did not believe that. Ever," he said. "And I spent 26 years in the military."
The military toughened its prostitution rules in 2005 after President George W. Bush signed an executive order adding patronizing prostitutes to the Manual for Courts-Martial.
The order spelled out offenses and penalties and gave the military a tough enforcement tool - if it chose to use it - for behavior that, as Graham said, had "been around military bases as long as there has been a military."
Lawrence Korb, a former defense official, said that while he has heard stories of wayward military personnel since his time in Vietnam, "we've never heard anything about the Secret Service before."
Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said it is unclear how often the military services impose the harsh written policies for personnel using prostitutes.
"I've never seen anybody go to jail," he said.
Nevertheless, training continues. Both the Pentagon and the State Department, which also has tough internal policies on prostitution, teach personnel that prostitution is often a form of human trafficking, with strong ties to underworld crime.
The military's general awareness and law enforcement training can be found on its website at http://ctip.defense.gov/
Country-specific training also stresses criminal links.
A U.S. Forces Korea policy states: "Prostitution and human trafficking shall not be facilitated in any way." It further says that hiring prostitutes is "incompatible with our military core values."
Graham said one reason for the effort is that military personnel assigned to other countries must adapt to local customs and morals. "If there was an effort to visit prostitutes in Afghanistan, we would come down hard. Simply because it's a cultural no-no in Afghanistan, it would bring wrath upon us," he said.
Graham said the Senate Armed Services Committee should look into the issue further.
"The commonality seems to be when the Secret Service and the military get together, in kind of exotic locations, things are going bad," Graham said. "So the military and Secret Service need to address: what is it about these trips?"
(Additional reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jackie Frank)