For the third time in a week, U.S. Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy faced pointed questions from members of Congress about officer misconduct and a lack of accountability for rank-and-file agents, but defended his beleaguered organization.
“The president, the White House, the first family is safe. Absolutely. I’ve protected four presidents. Four presidents who apparently respect the work that I’ve done," Clancy told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a three-and-a-half hour hearing Tuesday. "I know what it takes to protect presidents and their families. And I know that we are not a perfect agency. ... We know what we’re doing. But do we make mistakes? Yes we do. We make mistakes and we follow up on them.”
Still, committee members pelted Clancy. They wanted answers about a March 4 incident regarding two Secret Service agents, who appeared to be driving under the influence, and interfered with a bomb investigation at the White House. The incident is just one in a recent string of events that led members of Congress and the public to question the agency's effectiveness and leadership.
Lawmakers questioned Clancy about Secret Service culture. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call).
The Washington Post first reported the March 4 incident where two senior agents allegedly drove their car into White House barricades. During a March 17 appropriations hearing, Clancy said he was not aware of the incident until five days later, on March 9, and he reiterated Tuesday that this infuriated him. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general has opened an investigation into the incident, which caused some tension as lawmakers looked for their own answers Tuesday.
"I ... honestly do not understand this desire/willingness of government agencies to stand down to the inspector general and suspend their own investigations,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told the director. "You're supposed to be protecting the president of the United States and you can’t investigate a drunk driver?”
Gowdy emphasized Congress has investigative powers, apart from the inspector general, and they needed answers. Clancy often opted not to comment on specifics of the incident, saying he was going to wait until he had the facts on what happened from the inspector general, who told Clancy they would have answers in a matter of weeks.
When panel Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked Clancy why it took 11 minutes for Secret Service to alert the Metropolitan Police Department of the bomb investigation, and Clancy said he did not know, the Utah Republican had enough.
"How do you not — this is what’s so infuriating! You’re the director of the Secret Service. It’s almost three weeks after the incident and you don’t know why it takes 11 minutes to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, Metro Police Department, we’ve got a problem down here, we need you help,'” Chaffetz said in the hearing's third hour. “This is the United States of America! The threat is real. But I don’t feel it, I don’t see it, and it’s unacceptable.”
Even before the hearing started, tensions were high. The committee had requested other witnesses testify about the incident, but just Clancy came.
The hearing also opened with a dispute over the Secret Service not providing video of the incident. Chaffetz criticized the agency for only showing a few seconds of a video to lawmakers, and went on to show a time-lapse video of the car bumping into the barricade, provided by the Metropolitan Police Department.
In addition to that incident, the hearing delved into the agency's broader culture. The committee's ranking member, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said in his opening statement, "It appears that we have an agency at war against itself."
Clancy is a 27-year veteran of the service and was named director in February after serving as acting director for four months following the resignation of Julia Pierson. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., asked Clancy if the culture at the Secret Service had always been this bad.
"No sir," Clancy responded. "I know there was great dedication when I was younger and I think there is — I know there’s great dedication now. I honestly believe it’s a smaller element of people that are not satisfied."
Clancy pointed to a strain on staff, who were working overtime and could not get time off because they do not have enough officers. The director said they have been looking at a number of changes, including bonuses for retention and streamlining applicant times. He also said this past year the agency had six uniform officer classes, and six special agent classes, and they expect to increase those to nine and eight classes, respectively. Clancy also said part of the difficulty is that despite the high number of applicants (45,000 people applied for one special agent slot), only a fraction of applicants pass the background checks and necessary requirements.
But Clancy noted the agency's leadership needs to take responsibility to address the problem. He said he is adding a chief operating officer who will act at the same level as the deputy director, and will come from the private sector. Under the COO will be more civilian experts, operating as a chief financial office and a chief information officer. “This is not the same old Secret Service from one month ago,” Clancy said.
Despite the changes, members of Congress stressed that the culture at the Secret Service had to change, and they were going to keep asking questions until they were satisfied.
"We've got a high-powered microscope on this agency," Cummings said at the end of the hearing, "and we will not rest, in a bipartisan way, we will not rest until we get back to where we need to be."
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