Protections set up showdown with lawmakers attempting to investigate Secret Service scandals.
Homeland Security Department leadership has vowed to keep its mid-level employees out of the limelight and away from congressional inquiry, despite a lawmaker’s subpoena for two Secret Service agents to testify in the House.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued the subpoenas Tuesday for two Secret Service employees on duty during an incident last month involving allegedly inebriated agents inadvertently interfering with a bomb investigation. Chaffetz’s subpoenas follow a hearing on the incident in which Secret Service Director Joe Clancy testified, but lower ranking members of the service did not.
During that hearing, Clancy said he would make available for interviews with committee staff the individuals supervising on the night Mark Connolly and George Ogilvie drove a government vehicle into a White House barricade. The director has since revoked that offer, according to Chaffetz.
“In negotiations with the Department of Homeland Security, the department requested that information remain secret and be kept from Congress and the American people,” Chaffetz said. “Those restrictions are unacceptable. Under such restrictions, the committee cannot perform its essential duties to evaluate and propose much-needed legislative reforms for this troubled agency.”
In a statement Tuesday evening, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson called the subpoenas “unprecedented and unnecessary.” Johnson said Clancy has been forthcoming in public testimony and private meetings with Chaffetz, and has offered the subpoenaed individuals to conduct “transcribed interviews” with committee staff.
Johnson drew the line at allowing his employees to get involved in political mudslinging.
While he and Clancy are happy to make public testimony, “our subordinates, in particular the men and women of the U.S. Secret Service with the responsibility to protect the president and his family, are a different story,” Johnson said. He added, “Director Clancy and I must fight to protect them against the visibility, public glare, and inevitable second-guessing of a congressional hearing.”
Chaffetz said he appreciated the sensitivity of the mission of DHS and the Secret Service, but that excuse cannot prevent the committee from carrying out its oversight responsibilities.
“It is disappointing the department has declined to cooperate,” Chaffetz said. “We therefore must take the regrettable step of compelling the agents for interviews before the committee.”
Controversial subpoenas of career civil servants are familiar territory for the oversight committee; Chaffetz’s predecessor as chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., wielded the congressional power to force testimony from individuals on the targeting of certain political groups at the Internal Revenue Service.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, who previously joined the chairman in expressing disappointment the agents would not testify, said the subpoenas were a step too far.
"We all have the best interests of the president and his family in mind, so it is disappointing that inadequate communication led to what I believe are unnecessary subpoenas in this case,” Cummings said. “I sincerely believe the department and the committee can both fulfill their missions by making reasonable accommodations, and I hope we can engage in a constructive dialogue going forward."
Johnson echoed that sentiment, promising to work with Chaffetz so the committee could conduct “responsible oversight” without compromising the department’s mission. The March incident Chaffetz is seeking to further investigate is just the latest in a recent string of scandals plaguing the Secret Service.