The Secret Service has come under fire on multiple occasions since 2011 over a number of grave security incidents. Earlier this week, the agency found itself in the hot seat again after dozens of Secret Service employees, including supervisors, reviewed private information in an attempt to discredit a congressman.
On Tuesday, a joint hearing was held by the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management to examine recent and ongoing failures by the US Secret Service.
The hearing was called toexamine one incident in particular. In September, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (IG) issued a report stating Secret Service agents had violated the Privacy Act by improperly accessing and distributing information on the background of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform who was investigating Secret Service misconduct.
“Knowledge of Chairman Chaffetz’s application was widespread and was fueled and confirmed by improper access to the Secret Service database at issue,” DHS IG John Roth said.
Roth explained the information was accessed by Secret Service employees on approximately 60 occasions between March 25 and April 2 of this year. One individual acknowledged disclosing information protected by the Privacy Act to an outside source.
“This incident leaves numerous questions unanswered: how did this happen, why did Secret Service leadership not act, and why and how did Director Clancy change his account almost immediately after the IG’s report is released?,” subcommittee chairman Scott Perry (R-Penn.) questioned. “The American people deserve answers. DHS must hold all employees involved appropriately accountable.”
“As disturbing as this incident is, it is only one example of other instances where Secret Service employees showed very poor judgment and leadership failed to act,” Perry added.
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy was summoned to Capitol Hill for interrogation by the joint Senate-House panels. Clancy told lawmakers, “I would like to publicly renew my apology for this breach of trust and affirm my commitment to restoring it.”
Lawmakers said the incident is indicative of a “deeply rooted cultural problem.”
Over the past several years, Secret Service has come under fire on numerous occasions due to employee misconduct. Earlier this year, two Secret Service agents entered an area at the White House that had been secured as a result of a suspicious package. Roth determined that the senior agents’ judgment was likely impaired by alcohol.
The agents had spent five hours at a retirement party for a colleague where they racked up a significant bar tab. The agents then drove a government-owned vehicle into secured area at the White House, pushing a large construction barrier about five feet with the bumper of their vehicle before unwittingly driving within inches of the suspicious bag. The IG said the agents could have put their own lives in danger, as well as those around them, under different circumstances.
In another incident, top Secret Service officials diverted agents from their posts near the White House to conduct rotating surveillance shifts of the neighbor of the then Executive Staff Assistant to the former Secret Service Director in response to a private dispute unrelated to Secret Service’s mission. The neighborhood dispute occurred nearly an hour away from the White House in La Plata, Maryland.
In April 2012, a major scandal rocked the Secret Service after allegations emerged indicating that Secret Service agents solicited prostitution and engaged in other misconduct during preparations for President Obama’s visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
To make matters worse, the IG discovered one of the female Colombian nationals involved in the incident was known to the Intelligence Community. However, they found no evidence that the actions of Secret Service personnel had compromised any sensitive information.
Several Secret Service employees had their security clearances revoked after the incident, with five resigning or retiring prior the adjudication of their clearances. Others were cleared of serious misconduct and returned to duty with a memoranda for counseling.
Finally, six other incidents of misconduct involving Secret Service employees took place between June 2013 and June 2014 that the IG was not responsible for investigating. The incidents included two officers consuming alcohol during an overseas mission, one of which handled his rifle while under the influence. In March 2014, an employee crashed a government-owned vehicle during official travel related to a presidential visit while under the influence of alcohol.
“When scandal after scandal emerges and management is ill informed or fails to act, the American people have cause for great concern,” Perry said. “We entrust the Secret Service with tremendous authorities and tools. When they abuse those authorities, they violate their contract with the American people.”
Moving forward, Clancy testified the agency has made changes to technology in order to limit the potential for future misconduct, and are implementing enhanced training. Clancy said technological security deficiencies within the Secret Service’s primary internal database contributed to the unauthorized access of information.
The agency has also begun to implement corrective actions in response to the 14 recommendations provided by the IG. For example, among the improvements, the Secret Service has created a table of penalties for determining the appropriate disciplinary response to common offenses and has established a centralized process within headquarters for determining and implementing discipline for employee misconduct.
The need for a culture of accountability at the agency is not a new one. Homeland Security Today previously reported that an independent panel charged with investigating the Secret Service released a report last year revealing the agency is too insular and needs outside leadership to drive change.
The panel described the Secret Service as “an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability.”
At the time, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson noted that some of the panel’s recommendations were similar to others made in past agency reviews but were never implemented.
“This time must be different,” Johnson said.
But has it been? While Clancy noted the Secret Service has a long way to go to improve accountability and transparency, he also pointed to a number of recent accomplishments showing the agency is on the road to reform. Recent successful operations include the protection of Pope Francis on his recent visit to the United States, as well as President Xi Jingping of China during his first state visit to the US.
“As I look back over the past year, I see an agency in the midst of reform,” Clancy said. “I wish that people could walk in my shoes for a day and see what I see – a workforce with an uncompromising sense of duty and commitment to its integrated mission.”
But lawmakers remain skeptical.
“In many aspects, the agency is beyond rapprochement—this is a fabulous agency doing a great job,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “But on the other hand, we have a real cultural problem. There is nothing more corrosive in an organization with a cultural problem than when misdeeds go unpunished. This is three years now. It doesn’t seem like we are getting a handle on the cultural problem within the Secret Service.”
“In all of these incidents, it seems like there wasn’t an adult in the room,” said Rep. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).
“It’s the culture of the agency, it’s the esprit de corps,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). “If you are in the Secret Service, you have an obligation to uphold the integrity, honor, and discipline of the agency. And I think that’s what is missing here.”