By Chris Lawrence
As the investigation into the prostitution scandal continues to embroil the military and Secret Service, another high-ranking American official is set to visit Colombia this week.
But in his first trip to South America as defense secretary, Leon Panetta will be traveling to the capital of Bogota and trying to avoid having his trip overshadowed by the investigation in Cartagena, the site of President Barack Obama's recent visit where the scandal of misconduct erupted.
Eleven Secret Service members who were in Cartagena to assist with security around the presidential visit are being investigated for allegations that include the hiring of prostitutes.
The trip has been planned for months, and Panetta will also visit Brazil and Chile, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. No special briefings are being given to Panetta's security detail in relation to the recent scandal.
"I don't think anyone needs to be told that they need to conduct themselves in the manner that they should," Little told reporters on Friday. "We expect the highest standards of the U.S. military."
"The secretary is looking to expand security cooperation with three important countries. He sees these three countries as increasingly important on the world stage. It's time for us to enhance our cooperation with all three," Little told reporters last week.
One senior defense official said the trip is designed to expand the range of collaboration between the U.S. military and all three nations. "We'll be discussing new opportunities like cybersecurity," the official says, in addition to traditional assistance such as supporting Colombia's efforts against the guerrilla movement FARC.
A second senior defense official described FARC as "weakened, and getting weaker. They are on the run." About 150 U.S. military trainers are in Colombia, and an additional 150 contractors providing training to Colombia's military.
Defense officials briefed reporters about the upcoming trip with the condition they not be identified.
In the past month, Colombia requested additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance help during a meeting with Gen. Martin Demsey, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon is reviewing that request, and it will be one of the issues on the table during Panetta's meeting with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.
The first official says another focus of the trip is to help the defense departments of Brazil, Chile and Colombia better support civil authorities.
"You've got the World Cup and the Olympics coming to Brazil. Munich (the 1972 terrorist assault in Germany) happened, and everybody knows it. Anything we can do to make sure terrorist acts don't occur, we'll be grateful to assist Brazil. We can share our expertise in this area," the official said.
The U.S. military will also be looking to these nations for help in other areas of the world, where security is an issue.
"We want to deepen the dialogue on how they can help beyond the Northern Hemisphere, in places like Africa where we have limited resources to build security capacity," the official says. Brazil has deep ties to Africa, and one of the goals of the this trip is to strengthen its ties to U.S. Africa Command and assist with more peacekeeping missions.
The countries can also be of assistance to others within their own region, explained the first Defense official.
"Given the current limited resources for defense, these nations can become security exporters," the official observed, and noted Colombia has trained police in Honduras and Guatemala, as well as more than two dozen Mexican helicopter pilots.
The agenda will also include talks on preparations "for the next time a nation asks for assistance when disaster strikes. We could've done better in Haiti, if we had developed plans for transporting aid and not duplicating efforts beforehand," the second Defense official said.
Although not specifically on the agenda, Panetta is prepared to discuss the situation in Venezuela, including its recent military build-up, its relationship with Iran and the deteriorating health of President Hugo Chavez.