The new chief of the Secret Service answered a barrage of aggressive questions from lawmakers at a House hearing Tuesday while attempting to explain the recent string of incidents involving apparent employee malfeasance and agency failures.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members from both parties stressed the need to terminate employees involved in wrongdoing. Secret Service Director Joe Clancy promised to bring increased accountability to bad apples at the agency -- including the two agents who reportedly drunkenly drove a government vehicle into an active bomb investigation at a White House gate -- but lawmakers questioned the speed and urgency with which he is addressing the various issues.
Clancy said throughout the hearing he could not deal with his workforce like at-will employees.
“I am resolved to holding people accountable for their actions,” Clancy said. “But I want to make clear that I do not have the ability to simply terminate employees based solely on allegations of misconduct. This is not because I am being lenient, but because tenured federal government employees have certain constitutional due process rights which are implemented through statutory procedures.”
At the center of the hearing was the incident earlier this month, in which Secret Service agents Mark Connolly and George Ogilvie allegedly got drunk at a party and later interfered with a bomb investigation at the White House. Prior to those agents’ arrival, a woman drove past the gate and threw a package at it, claiming it was a bomb. In addition to concerns involving the potentially intoxicated agents, lawmakers were also astounded at how long it took the Secret Service to respond to the bomb threat.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and others chastised Clancy for the time it took agents to section off a crime scene and notify the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the inability of the service to save video of the incident and deliver it to the committee, and the lack of a clear chain of command. At one point the criticism became so intense that a committee member threatened Clancy’s job, though he was sworn in just weeks ago.
“[Former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson] recognized what needed to change before she got railroaded out,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “You’ll be railroaded out too if you don’t make changes.”
Among the changes Mica wanted to see: an easier hiring and firing process. Mica said too often, employees are moved horizontally to another office rather than being dismissed from federal service entirely. Clancy agreed that was an issue, but still at one point touted his accountability credentials by noting he has “no problem” moving agents to other positions within the Homeland Security Department.
“That’s part of the problem,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. “They’re just moved to a nice desk job somewhere else.” Duncan added there is a “growing sense throughout the country” that federal employees in general are becoming more “bureaucratic, elitist and arrogant,” and the U.S. government is becoming “of, by and for the bureaucrats instead of, by and for the people.”
Connolly and Ogilvie, the two agents suspected of driving drunk into a White House barricade, have also been moved to a DHS desk job, Clancy said, arguing he thought he could get “some work out of them” rather than placing them on administrative leave while their alleged misconduct is investigated.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said this is sending the message to the rest of the Secret Service workforce that Clancy “didn’t discipline them at all.” Clancy promised to improve accountability efforts moving forward, noting that one of the major reasons the Secret Service has suffered from low morale is the very perception Lynch raised.
Also affecting morale, Clancy said, is a staffing shortage and major cuts to training . The director said the Secret Service has struggled to fill positions despite floods of applications pouring in. The agency received a whopping 45,000 applications for a recent class of 24 vacancies, but the applicants were overwhelmingly dismissed for prior drug use or bad credit. Still, the service is starting to make good on its promised hiring surge, which Clancy said in turn will lead to more training.
The recent bomb scene disruption was only the latest in a long line of scandals , prompting one lawmaker to say the agency is mirroring the Keystone Cops and another to say its actions resemble “the screenplay for some new comedy.”
Not everyone found levity in the service’s recent ineptitude. After Clancy told him “we’re going to wait” for the results of an inspector general report to act, Chaffetz pointedly raised his voice.
“ ’We’re going to wait,’ that’s the problem,” Chaffetz said. “We’re not playing games. This is the life and security of the president of the United States.”
Ultimately, Clancy promised to reform the Secret Service and bring it back to respectability, but warned it would not happen overnight.
“I didn’t come back from private industry to just enjoy the ride,” Clancy said. “Unfortunately I don’t have a magic wand. It’s going to take a bit of time.”
The Secret Service did deliver some of the video from the March incident, which can be viewed below.