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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Secret Service Director Points to ‘Morale Issue’

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Secret Service has a "management problem" and a "morale issue," the director of that maligned agency testified Tuesday before a joint meeting of Congress.

Joseph Clancy, who has been the head of the Secret Service since October 2014, said increasing diversity and accountability, both for agents and their supervisors, are part of his plan to improve agency culture.

Such changes take time, however, the director told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency and the Senate Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.

"We have to just keep communicating, keep communicating with our people," Clancy said. "And again, what the Congress is doing today helps us and to our agency because again, the seriousness of what we've done in this particular case resonates by these types of hearing."

At the forefront of Tuesday's hearing was how the Secret Service handled the leak this past March of an application to the agency that House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz submitted in the early 2000s.

Secret Service employees reportedly accessed this old Chaffetz application at least 60 times within minutes of a March 24 hearing that Chaffetz's committee convened to question Clancy about security lapses.

Echoing testimony from other witnesses Tuesday, Clancy blamed the leak on an antiquated database designed in the 1980s that did not conform to modern demands on information-technology systems.

Joel Willemssen, an IT managing director with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said such tech problems are not unique to Secret Service.

"In particular, our work has often shown that too many agency employees have too much unnecessary access to too many systems and databases," Willemssen said.

Clancy said Secret Service has replaced the old system with one that reduces the number of employees with access to sensitive information by 95 percent.

Anyone who accessed data improperly are subject to a suspension of up to 12 days, and that the agency is considering proposals to hold higher-ups accountable as well, Clancy said.

"We have all this training, and we have the ethics guides, and we go out and train our new recruits, but a hearing like this puts a definitive stamp on our failures," Clancy added.

Inspector General John Roth sparked a debate when he said the Department of Justice rejected an opportunity to prosecute what Roth called the most-compelling case of an agent who improperly accessed Chaffetz's application.

A seemingly surprised Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked what actions would instead be taken.

"There's nothing more corrosive in an organization that has a cultural problem when misdeeds go unpunished," Johnson said.

Rep. Curtis Clawson, R-Fla., also admonished the agency for taking too long to correct its self-admitted cultural problems.

"Why so slow?" Clawson asked Clancy. "Systematic, schmystematic, you know? You're the chief, you've got the head of Homeland Security. Let's go, let's take some action so that you can do what's right, preserve the culture for all your great performers."

While the two-hour hearing focused primarily on the circumstances that allowed Secret Service employees to leak Chaffetz's Secret Service application, several other recent scandals within the agency came up as well.

Roth said the Office of the Inspector General is looking into three recent security breaches for which the agency should answer: the night in 2011 when a gunman sitting in a parked car on Constitution Avenue fired seven shots into the White House; the 2014 incident in which an armed security guard with an arrest record got into an elevator with the president; and the breakdown that allowed a man to enter the White House by jumping a fence in March.

Members of the committee also brought up the 2012 prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, as well as the March incident in which agents apparently driving under the influence while returning from a retirement party crashed into a barrier that occurred while the Secret Service investigated a suspicious package near the White House.

Mentioned only briefly was the recent arrest of a Secret Service accused of sending obscene messages to a person he believed to be a 14-year-old girl.

Despite the breadth of scandals the committee referenced, the tone of the hearing was less confrontational than other, similar inquests on the Hill. Conceding that the problems at the agency started before Clancy took office, the committee members said the hearing was more about instructing and helping the agency.

"I hope we're not picking on you," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

If the committee were to "flip the table," Lankford said they might find many of the same systemic issues that plague Secret Service within the members of Congress.

Lankford speculated that the ratio of delinquents in the House and Senate would be much higher than the 1 percent of people Clancy estimated were doing wrong in the Secret Service.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., emphasized the concerns Congress has "about the culture."

"And I would hope that going forward you would take this hearing, as you said, as a moment of instruction to try to fix it," Thompson added.

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