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IG: Secret Service Showed ‘Serious Lapse in Judgment’ in Operation Moonshine

Watchdog criticizes agency for diverting agents in 2011 from protecting White House to monitoring an employee’s neighborhood fight.

The Secret Service showed “a serious lapse in judgment” when it diverted agents and government resources to monitor an employee’s neighborhood dispute in 2011, according to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

Eight agents who were part of the agency’s team tasked with responding to suspicious people and situations near the White House spent five days in July 2011 performing “welfare checks” on a long-time employee who had had a run-in with a neighbor near her residence in La Plata, Md. -- a 50-minute drive from Washington without traffic.

The results of the investigation were released on Wednesday, the same day the Secret Service captured a second person who jumped over the fence surrounding the White House. In September, an armed man scaled the fence and ran far into the White House before being apprehended by an agent who was punching out for the day.

President Obama was in the White House during the same time on at least two of the days the agents were told to monitor the employee’s neighborhood, the IG’s investigation found. “These agents, who were there to protect the president and the White House, were improperly diverted for an impermissible purpose,” said Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth in an Oct. 22 statement accompanying the results of the investigation. “The Secret Service’s mission is to protect the president of the United States, and not to involve itself in an employee’s purely private dispute best handled by the local police.”

The employee, who at the time was an assistant in the office of then-Director Mark Sullivan and personal friends with senior agency officials, told her supervisor in early July 2011 that she had fought with a neighbor in June, culminating in a physical confrontation between the employee’s father and the neighbor, which “resulted in the loss of several of her father’s teeth.”  Local police arrested the neighbor and the incident resulted in a “peace order” prohibiting the neighbor from contacting or harassing the employee or her father, or going on their property.

Top officials, including then-Deputy Director Keith Prewitt and then-Assistant Director for Investigations A.T. Smith, believed it was appropriate to assign the field agents to perform “welfare checks” on the employee, which consisted of sitting in their government cars watching the neighborhood in southern Maryland and calling the employee periodically to see if there were any issues with the neighbor. Prewitt, who is now retired, told the IG he would make the same decision again, telling investigators, “You look after your people.” Smith is now deputy director of the Secret Service.

Smith told the IG that he directed the agents to handle the assignment, known as Operation Moonlight and Operation Moonshine, because “the rural location of the employee's residence, the lack of police coverage, and the employee's previous history with the neighbor presented concern for the welfare of the employee.” Those concerns and the employee’s “status as a White House pass holder and her access to the Secret Service Director's Office were also determining factors, according to Smith,” the investigation report stated.

The agents given the assignment were part of what is known as the Prowler team. They use unmarked Secret Service vehicles, wear plain clothes and are not part of the presidential protective division, but rather the Washington field office’s protective intelligence unit.

None of the agents or top officials involved believed Operation Moonshine compromised the security of the president or the White House. Some of the agents the IG interviewed believed the assignment was an appropriate use of agency resources, while others told the watchdog they thought it was a matter best handled by the local police.

“Based on the records we were able to obtain, the Prowler team was diverted for a considerable period of time: July 2nd - 3.5 hours; July 3rd - 5 hours; and July 5th- over 4 hours and 8 hours (in two shifts),” said the IG report. “In each of these instances, the Prowler team would have been unable to respond to exigencies at the White House.”

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