An assistant director of the Secret Service urged that unflattering information the agency had in its files about a congressman critical of the service should be made public, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.
“Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out,” Assistant Director Edward Lowery wrote in an email to a fellow director on March 31, commenting on an internal file that was being widely circulated inside the service. “Just to be fair.”
Two days later, a news website reported that Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had applied to be a Secret Service agent in 2003 and been rejected.
That information was part of Chaffetz’s personnel file stored in a restricted Secret Service database and required by law to be kept private.
The report by John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, singled out Lowery, in part because of his senior position at the agency. The report also cited Lowery’s email as the one piece of documentary evidence showing the degree of anger inside the agency at Chaffetz and the desire for the information to be public.
Lowery had been promoted to the post of assistant director for training just a month earlier as part of an effort that Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy said would reform the agency after a series of high-profile security lapses. Clancy had tapped Lowery to join a slate of new leaders he installed after removing more than two-thirds of the previous senior management team.
During the inspector general’s probe, Lowery denied to investigators that he directed anyone to leak the private information about Chaffetz to the press and said his e-mail was simply a vent for his stress and anger.
The Chaffetz file, contained in the restricted database, had been peeked at by about 45 Secret Service agents, some of whom shared it with their colleagues in March and April, the report found. This prying began after a contentious March 24 House hearing at which Chaffetz scolded the director and the agency for its series of security gaffes and misconduct. The hearing sparked anger inside the agency.
The inspector general’s inquiry found the Chaffetz information was spread to nearly every layer of the service.
Staff members in the most senior headquarters offices, the president’s protective detail, the public affairs office, the office of investigations and field offices in Sacramento, Charlotte, Dallas and elsewhere accessed Chaffetz’s file – and many acknowledged sharing it widely, according to the report. The day after the March 24 hearing, one agent who had been sent to New York for the visit of the president of Afghanistan recalled that nearly all of the 70 agents at a briefing were discussing it.
All told, 18 supervisors, including assistant directors, the deputy director and even Clancy’s chief of staff knew the information was being widely shared through agency offices, the report said.
“These agents work for an agency whose motto – ‘Worthy of trust and confidence’ – is engraved in marble in the lobby of their headquarters building,” Roth wrote in his summary report. “Few could credibly argue that the agents involved in this episode lived up to this motto.”
In an e-mailed statement, Clancy said: “I have reviewed the DHS OIG Report and have provided additional information to the DHS IG. The Secret Service takes employee misconduct very seriously, and as I have stated before, any employee, regardless of rank or seniority, who has committed misconduct will be held accountable. This incident will be no different and I will ensure the appropriate disciplinary actions are taken.
“On behalf of the men and women of the United States Secret Service, I again apologize to Representative Chaffetz for this wholly avoidable and embarrassing misconduct. Additionally, I will continue to review policies and practices to address employee misconduct and demand the highest level of integrity of all our employees.”
After reviewing the IG report, the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said in a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by what Roth’s team uncovered and that staffers who have shown themselves to be “unwilling or unable to meet the highest ethical standards” should leave the agency.
“Chairman Chaffetz and I have worked together to help restore the Secret Service to its standing as the most elite protective agency in the world,” Cummings said. “Today’s findings by the Inspector General go directly against this goal and are completely and utterly unacceptable and indefensible.”
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose department includes the Secret Service, urged in a statement that those personnel who had engaged in inappropriate conduct should be held responsible.
Roth said in his report that it was “especially ironic and troubling” that the Chaffetz information circulated so widely inside the agency and yet Clancy did not know about it. Even Clancy chief of staff Michael Biermann and Deputy Director Craig Magaw had been privy to the information, the report said, but did not alert Clancy.
Clancy had previously raised concerns about the failure of his staff to keep him properly informed. At the March 24 hearing, he said he was “infuriated” that he was not alerted by his senior management to an incident earlier that month in which two senior supervisors drove onto the White House complex after a night of drinking and crossed through an active bomb-investigation scene.
“He testified that he was ‘working furiously to try to break down these barriers where people feel that they can’t talk up the chain,’ ” Roth wrote. “Yet the Director himself did not know.”
Roth’s investigation examined not only who accessed Chaffetz’s personnel file inside the service but also who disclosed information about the file to the media. The Daily Beast first reported on April 2 that Chaffetz had once been rejected for a job at the service. The Washington Post reported additional details later that evening.
One official told The Post that the material included a parody poster that pictured Chaffetz leading a hearing on the Secret Service from his congressional dais, with the headline, “Got BQA from the Service in 2003.” Within the Secret Service, “BQA” is an acronym meaning that a “better qualified applicant” was available.
Roth’s report said investigators were unable to pin down how The Post and the Daily Beast obtained their information. “Because of the significant number of individuals who had knowledge of Chairman Chaffetz’s application history, we were unable to conclusively determine the universe of sources of the disclosure . . . to individuals outside of government,” the report said.
Roth himself has faced criticism over his handling of the investigation because he allowed inspectors from the Secret Service’s internal affairs office to sit in on interviews and question some witnesses alongside his investigators. Legal experts and former government investigators have said the service’s involvement was a potential conflict of interest because top officials at the agency had an incentive to embarrass Chaffetz. Experts also expressed concerns that it could deter internal whistleblowers from coming forward with additional allegations of misconduct, for fear of retribution by their bosses.
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