Two weeks after the Secret Service forced out four of its top officials, lawmakers are questioning whether the agency should have ousted one more — its influential second-in-command.
Members of Congress from both parties are concerned that by keeping in place Alvin “A.T.” Smith, the Secret Service stopped short of fully reforming upper management following a string of embarrassing security lapses, according to government officials familiar with the discussions.
Smith, as a top official for nearly a decade and the deputy director since 2012, has managed the agency’s day-to-day operations and was a key architect of its budgets and policies. He has overseen the departments responsible for the missteps and is now helping to engineer the agency’s overhaul.
Smith is the highest-ranking official to survive a series of management shake-ups that began in October with the resignation of Director Julia Pierson and continued this month with the ouster or retirement of six assistant directors.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to invite Smith and acting director Joseph P. Clancy to appear at a February hearing focusing on the core reasons behind security breaches involving the White House and the president, according to people knowledgeable about the panel’s plans.
Committee members have heard from agency whistleblowers who have complained that Smith approved policy changes that they say weakened the agency, according to these people. Lawmakers have also quietly expressed concern to administration officials in recent days about Smith’s continued presence in the agency’s top leadership.
“I’m worried that A.T. Smith is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “He seems to be in the middle of most of these really bad decisions.”
Smith and Clancy declined to comment. Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan also declined to discuss Smith’s role but said the deputy director has a “proven record of accomplishment and professionalism.”
The discussions regarding Smith’s role underscore a dilemma facing the Obama administration as it attempts to turn around the beleaguered protective agency: how to clean house in the upper ranks without losing the unusual expertise required for the highly specialized work of protecting the White House and national leaders.
Smith’s allies say that ousting the 28-year Secret Service veteran would strip the agency of the little remaining continuity and institutional knowledge remaining after the shake-up in leadership.
“He’s a pivotal peg in the foundation,” said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. “If he gets pulled, I’m concerned there would be a need for a complete rebuild. We don’t have luxury for a rebuild, because the bad guys aren’t going to wait for us to do a complete overhaul.”
A reminder of the Secret Service’s continuing challenges came this week when an errant recreational drone evaded detection and crashed on the White House grounds. The device was not a threat, but the agency has studied the White House’s vulnerability to a drone attack for years and has yet to find a solution. This week’s incident came four months after a knife-wielding man was able to jump the White House fence and race into the front door and through much of the main floor — a humiliation for the Secret Service that exposed poor training and numerous breakdowns in communications and procedures.
Smith, 56, who started his law enforcement career as a Greenville, S.C., sheriff’s dispatcher and joined the Secret Service in 1986 as a special investigator in the Miami field office, knows the inner workings of the agency better than anyone, according to several current and former managers.
He also has made political connections as he has risen through the ranks, serving during the 1990s as head of the protective detail for then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Smith married President Bill Clinton’s cousin Catherine Cornelius in 2000, and Bill and Hillary Clinton attended the wedding at Foundry Methodist Church near the White House.
Smith has received a number of awards during his career, particularly related to his time heading the New York field office and managing major security events. New York agents applauded his steady hand in rebuilding the agency’s flagship field office after its headquarters at the World Trade Center was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and one of its officers was killed.
The George W. Bush administration honored him with a merit award in 2004 for his handling of security at the Republican National Convention at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Smith received the Secretary’s Silver Medal from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for coordinating security for the 60th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, at the time the largest security event the agency had ever managed.
But Smith is also directly responsible for some of the decisions cited as contributing factors in recent security lapses, including the Sept. 19 fence-jumping incident and the failure of the security system at Vice President Biden’s Delaware home when shots were fired near the house this month.
Smith signed off on canceling academy classes for new recruits and regular training for officers, which resulted in the White House being guarded by a team of Secret Service officers who were stretched thin and often unsure of their specific duties in responding to an intruder. He also approved cutting back on funds meant to replace aging technology and alarms.
His management decisions came under scrutiny after he authorized a special operation in 2011 that diverted agents from a White House surveillance post to monitor the well-being of the Secret Service director’s administrative assistant, who was in a dispute with her neighbor.
The agency’s inspector general later concluded that “Operation Moonlight” was improper and represented a “serious lapse in judgment” in removing agents from a key post. Smith defended his actions, telling investigators that he felt it was appropriate for the Secret Service to be concerned about the welfare of a staffer, particularly one who held a White House pass and worked closely with the agency director.
Smith’s critics say he is one of the central architects of an insular management structure that has lost the trust of rank-and-file employees, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former personnel.
Many inside were shocked that Smith was not forced out along with the top managers. “People were holding their breath for two months,” one veteran agent said. “Now they are wondering: Why is the core of the problem still there?”
A special panel appointed by the Department of Homeland Security recommended last month that the White House pick a new director from outside the Secret Service, describing the agency as “starved” for dynamic leaders with fresh ideas.
In recent weeks, Smith has provided close counsel to Clancy, who has said he is seeking to repair management problems and repair the battered image of a once-
Smith was involved in the recent departures of senior managers. And last week, he helped choose five new assistant directors to fill the new vacancies, almost all of whom served with Smith on previous assignments.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.