The director of the Secret Service has contradicted statements he made to a top government investigator examining his agency’s disclosure of unflattering information about a congressman, saying he now recalls more about the matter, according to two government officials briefed on the probe.
Director Joseph P. Clancy this week alerted investigators from the Department of Homeland Security that he was revising his account, the officials said. Clancy says he now remembers details of the incident, which involved agency personnel circulating information from its files that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), an outspoken critic of the service, had once applied for a job at the agency and was turned down.
During a highly publicized inquiry by the DHS inspector general, Clancy told investigators that he was unaware of the information about Chaffetz until being informed April 1 that The Washington Post planned to publish an article about the matter, according to the report by Inspector General John Roth. Clancy also told investigators that he had been unaware that his staff was circulating the information internally, in violation of federal privacy law.
Roth’s report, released Wednesday, found that 45 agents and supervisors had peeked at Chaffetz’s personnel file, which was stored in an internal Secret Service database. The report said 18 supervisors, including the deputy director and Clancy’s chief of staff, knew that the information had been accessed inside the agency. But the report said Clancy was a notable exception and had never been informed.
Clancy now says he knew that the unflattering information was being shared inside his agency and was told about it by a top deputy before it was leaked to the news media, officials said.
As a result of his new statements, investigators from Roth’s office plan to reinterview Clancy about his revised account, the officials said.
In a statement to The Post, Clancy said Thursday that after the inspector general’s report was released this week, he recalled becoming aware on March 25 of a “speculative rumor” that Chaffetz had applied to the service and had been rejected. Clancy said he considered it at the time to be “not credible” and “not indicative” of any inappropriate action by employees.
“It was not until later that I became aware that this rumor had developed as Agency employees had used an Agency database to gain access to this information,” Clancy said in the statement. “I feel it is extremely important to be as accurate as possible regarding my knowledge of this matter and I have personally spoken to Chairman Chaffetz to advise him of the additional information that I provided to the Inspector General.”
Chaffetz, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has often clashed with Secret Service brass, said in an interview Friday that Clancy apologized to him in a telephone call. The lawmaker said Clancy also acknowledged during the call that he had learned the information about the job application several days before it became public but then had forgotten.
Chaffetz said it’s troubling that the director didn’t seem too concerned about his staff members knowing something they would have learned by violating federal privacy law.
“It wasn’t as if the director made any effort to squelch this at the time,” Chaffetz said. “He knew about it the day after the hearing. There’s no evidence that he did anything about it.”
Lawmakers from both parties have said the efforts to embarrass Chaffetz are intolerable and have called on Clancy to punish those in his agency who were involved. One of Clancy’s hand-picked assistant directors, Edward Lowery, urged that the information about Chaffetz be made public, according to Roth’s report.
A Secret Service official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said Clancy should not have been expected to know immediately that the information came from an internal file or that it posed a problem.
“Upon receiving a speculative rumor of this nature, a senior manager or any other employee would have no reasonable expectation to immediately know, or instinctively presume, that the information had to come from a Secret Service data system,” the official said.
The latest disclosures about Clancy come at time when doubt is mounting over his ability to reform the agency after high-profile security failures and misconduct in recent years.
President Obama picked Clancy as director this year against the advice of an administration panel of experts, who urged selecting an outsider to help improve the Secret Service. Clancy is a 27-year veteran of the agency and the former head of the president’s security detail. The panel said the Secret Service needed a transformative new leader without agency ties who could shake up its entrenched culture of secrecy and impunity.
In this latest incident, top leaders in the Secret Service began fuming when Chaffetz led a March 24 committee hearing at which he repeatedly criticized Clancy for mishandling several cases of security lapses and misconduct, and accused him of misleading the committee. Within minutes of the hearing’s start, an agent looked up Chaffetz’s name in an internal master database and found that he had applied to be an agent in 2003 and been turned down without getting an interview, according to Roth’s report.
Roth’s team found that Lowery had urged making public that Chaffetz had been turned down for a job. “Just to be fair,” Lowery wrote in his March 31 e-mail.
“Again they are demonstrating why we need to conduct thorough oversight of their agency,” Chaffetz said in reaction. “Their culture is reprehensible.”
On Friday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Clancy expressing his deep concern at the effort to use private information to smear a critic, and he demanded answers about how Clancy would hold people accountable in the incident.
“No one, whether a Member of Congress or a private citizen, should have private information violated in this manner. This incident is precisely why Americans do not trust the federal government with their personal information,” Goodlatte said.
He demanded that Clancy tell him by Wednesday how he will discipline the individuals identified as sharing this information and specifically asked about Lowery.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a friend of Chaffetz who sat in on a briefing Wednesday on the investigation’s findings, said Clancy needs to recognize that the agency has broken a sacred trust with the public — not just a congressman.
“This is about expecting and trusting law enforcement officials to use the special tools we entrust them with,” Gowdy said. “You cannot use these special tools the public gives you to go after someone doing their job.”
In response to the inspector general’s findings about inappropriate conduct at the Secret Service, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that Obama was concerned about the activity but had not lost faith in the director.
“The president certainly has confidence that the appropriate steps will be taken to hold accountable those who didn’t follow procedures,” Earnest said. “When there are mistakes that are made, we’ve seen the director do the right thing, which is step up and take responsibility and offer an apology where it’s appropriate, but also assure not just Congressman Chaffetz, but also the president and the American people, that there will be accountability.”
Earnest added that the service’s initial response to this report is an indication that “there is strong leadership in place at the Secret Service.”
Despite the high expectations set by Obama and DHS leaders, the agency has been bedeviled by more high-profile miscues.
In March, two top supervisors, including the second in command of Obama’s security detail, spent a night drinking at an agent’s retirement party in a downtown bar and then drove onto the White House complex, through barricades and into an investigation of a suspected bomb. A watch commander decided to let them drive off without any sobriety testing, even though officers on the scene thought that both men were drunk.
In April, a female staffer reported that a top supervisor at headquarters had sexually assaulted her at an office party. That same month, an errant gyrocopter landed on the White House grounds, revealing that the service had little protection from drones and similar unmanned aircraft.