The Secret Service has renewed its emphasis on training and hiring, including a more stringent candidate-selection process, in the wake of high-profile security failures at the White House, acting agency chief Joseph Clancy told lawmakers Wednesday.
With little more than 40 days in the position, Clancy told the House Judiciary Committee that he had already identified areas for improvement after a series of lapses that included a fence-jumping White House intruder in September, shots being fired at the building in 2011 and a prostitution scandal involving agents on an overseas visit to Colombia in 2012.
“Failure can be an integral part of success, whether that refers to an agency or an individual,” said Clancy. He replaced previous agency director Julia Pierson, who resigned after a series of revelations about the fence jumper and other security failures.
Clancy’s testimony came after a Department of Homeland Security review earlier this month was critical of the agency’s performance following the security breach in September, during which, authorities say, 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez ran into the White House before being tackled by agents.
Since then, Clancy said, the Secret Service has pushed for further training, adding that officers now complete White House intruder scenarios at the agency’s Maryland training facility.
"If we can get our folks trained, they are going to feel more confident in their actions every day," he said.
Clancy said hiring had been improved to ensure higher-quality candidates. More than 40,000 people applied for the most recent Secret Service class, Clancy said, but few passed the hiring process.
Clancy said that more than 200 people have been hired to the Service in 2014, with more scheduled for 2015. This was after a “severe drop-off” in personnel from a high of more than 7,000 staffers in 2011, he said, linked to federal budget cuts.
But the hiring process for a new agent can take up to a year, and training is difficult when officers are overscheduled, he noted.
“When we are understaffed, it’s very difficult to get them to training,” he said. “When we’re not properly trained, we fail.”
Clancy was careful to note that he did not believe budget cuts led to the errors in the September fence-jumping.
Lawmakers emphasized the need for a higher standard for agents in light of the prostitution scandal and a case involving drunken agents during a visit to the Netherlands earlier this year.
"When I hear reports of alcohol abuse when you're on the job or about to go on the job, and when I hear reports of sexual harassment of female colleagues ... that is not a training issue. That's a moral issue," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Among the issues that plagued agents in September, according to the Homeland Security report, were garbled radio traffic that made tracking Gonzalez difficult, personnel who were unfamiliar with the White House floor plan, and a canine officer taking a call on his personal cellphone at the time, according to the report.
A lack of sufficient training for uniformed Secret Service officers, overworked agents, and confusion over reporting up the chain of command contributed to the day’s failures, the report concluded.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a vocal critic of the Secret Service, challenged Clancy over misleading information the agency released about the lapses, including stating that the fence-jumper was unarmed. Agents recovered a small pocketknife after apprehending the suspect.
“Until you actually live by your own codes and hold people responsible and accountable, you’re going to continue to have these problems,” Chaffetz said.
The agency also awaits the results of an independent commission formed to investigate the security lapses. The commission expects to release its results in December.
During the hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) provided a moment of humor when he proposed a moat surrounding the White House to supplement the existing fence. He later added, jokingly, that Gonzalez “got farther into the White House than some of my Republican colleagues have ever gotten.”