The Justice Department’s inspector general is examining the allegations, which involve Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel in some half a dozen cities, including in East and Southeast Asia, said the people.
The FBI said, in a statement via email, that it referred the allegations to the inspector general. “Upon learning of these allegations of misconduct, action was taken to reassign certain personnel to non-operational roles while the allegations are reviewed,” the agency said.
In the statement, the FBI said, “All FBI employees are held to the highest standards of conduct, and allegations against any employee are taken very seriously.”
A spokesman for the inspector general, the Justice Department’s in-house watchdog, declined to comment.
The allegations are a potential black eye for an agency that has become a magnet for criticism as it has tried to navigate some of the biggest political battles of the year.
The Bureau was asked to briefly reopen a background investigation into now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual assault, which he denied. And the FBI has been at the center of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including any links to the Trump campaign.
The personal conduct of FBI agents came under scrutiny after the disclosure of anti-Trump text messages between two then-FBI employees who had been involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, prompting some Republicans to accuse the Bureau of political bias.
The FBI has so-called legal attaché offices, or “legats,” based at U.S. embassies in dozens of cities around the world, where agents work with foreign counterparts to combat international terrorism and to obtain information about crimes the FBI is investigating.
The posts tend to last several years, and often involve cultivating relationships with local officials over late-night drinks, former agents and others said.
Issues involving prostitution, which is legal or tolerated in some countries, have been a particular concern for FBI officials, who worry about foreign intelligence services trying to compromise agents or other U.S. embassy personnel, people familiar with the matter said.
Agents going overseas receive extensive briefings on potential avenues foreign officers may seek to compromise them, former agents said.
The exact nature of the allegations against the FBI employees, and the locations of the alleged activities, couldn’t be determined.
Other law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, have dealt with similar scandals in recent years.
In 2015, the Justice Department’s inspector general found that DEA agents stationed in Colombia attended parties with prostitutes, and in 2012 the Secret Service disciplined about a dozen agents amid allegations that they brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Colombia while preparing for a visit by then-President Barack Obama.
The FBI has largely steered clear of such issues, but it has faced some embarrassing episodes in recent months.
Earlier this year, the bureau admitted it had relied on overstated statistics to arrive at the number of encrypted phones that investigators have been unable to access—an issue FBI leaders have repeatedly cited as one of their biggest concerns.