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White House Crash Signals More Trouble for Secret Service


FILE - Secret Service Uniformed Division officers patrol in front of the White House, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015.
FILE - Secret Service Uniformed Division officers patrol in front of the White House, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015.

More details emerged Thursday in the case of two high-ranking U.S. Secret Service agents who are under investigation following allegations they smashed a government car into a security barricade at the White House after drinking at a party.

In a story first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post, local police and Secret Service officers were investigating the discovery of a suspicious package near the White House when the agents drove through an entrance that had been closed off. Quoting unnamed sources, the Post report indicates the two agents may have not only disrupted a possible bomb investigation but possibly driven over the suspicious package that was being investigated.

Officers on the scene wanted to arrest the agents and give them field sobriety tests, according to the Post, but supervisors allegedly intervened and ordered that the men be sent home instead — suggesting a possible cover-up.

One of the agents has been identified as the second-ranking commander on President Barack Obama's personal security detail. The investigation is being conducted by the Homeland Security department, which oversees the Secret Service.

"If misconduct is identified, appropriate action will be taken based on established rules and regulations," said Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary.

"The fact that this event involved senior-level agents is not only embarrassing but exhibits a clear lack of judgment in a potentially dangerous situation," said a joint statement issued by Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee's top Democrat.

Latest scandal

This is the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents for the Secret Service, which is tasked to protect the president and vice president and their families. One involved Secret Service agents and prostitutes in Colombia in 2012, and another occurred last September, when a knife-wielding man jumped the White House fence and ran through multiple rooms of the mansion before he was stopped.

That incident led to the resignation of then-Director Julia Pierson.

An independent review conducted after the September incident described an agency that was too "insular" and starved for leadership. The report called for an outsider to lead the Secret Service, but Obama named Joseph Clancy, a veteran Secret Service agent, to the post. Clancy, who headed the president's detail early in his administration before retiring from the agency, was named interim director after Pierson's resignation.

In an interview before the latest incident, Clancy acknowledged he was taking on a troubled agency.

“I think when you fail, and we have failed, we own it," he said. "Now it's up to us to correct it.”

A questionable choice?

But now the question some are asking is whether the president did the right thing by picking Clancy, an insider, to run the troubled agency instead of tapping someone from outside.

A White House spokesman on Thursday said the president is disappointed by the latest reports of misconduct but stands by his choice, saying he picked Clancy because of “known leadership” within the agency.

Vincent Palamara, an author who has written about the history of the Secret Service, says that while lapses of professionalism are not new at the service, morale has plummeted and cases of misconduct have risen since the agency was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security - an agency with a history of bureaucratic dysfunction.

“Ever since they switched to Homeland Security, what’s happened is they’re under this big monstrous bureaucracy and consequently some things are getting swept under the rug,” he said.

Jason Barnosky is a governance scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written on the problems at the Secret Service. He says the fix may require more than personnel changes or moving the agency out of Homeland Security. He also said budget cuts have hurt the agency, and in turn, the training of agents.

“With training, part of that actually has to do with staffing," he said. "The Secret Service has been short-staffed and they have folks that have to spend a lot of time doing overtime instead of doing the training that they need.”