White House defends Secret Service director amid new agency scandal

Secret Service has reassigned two agents involved in alcohol-fueled driving incident

The White House maintained Thursday that it had confidence in the new Secret Service director following allegations of two top agents driving into a security barrier on White House grounds after a night out drinking, the latest scandal to befall the storied protection service.

The agency said the men were reassigned and an investigation was being conducted, but the accusations renewed questions about how fit the Secret Service is to protect the first family and how much bad behavior the Obamas are willing to tolerate from their bodyguards.

In addition to driving a government vehicle under the influence of alcohol, the two agents may have driven through an active bomb investigation scene and possibly even driven over the suspicious package in question, the Washington Post reported. Administration officials who said they had seen surveillance video of the incident declined to confirm that report, but one familiar with the inquiry said the package turned out not to be a bomb.

The top-ranking lawmakers on a House committee that has been investigating the Secret Service for months say they remain focused on whether "instances of misconduct" indicate a larger problem of agency culture.

"Although recent steps have been made to bring new leadership in at the highest levels, this incident begs the question of whether that is enough," said Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Democrat Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. "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."

But aides to President Obama said that he still had faith in the leadership of the Secret Service and that he believed newly appointed Director Joseph Clancy is well-equipped to clean up problems at the scandal-plagued agency.

"Nobody has higher standards for the Secret Service than Director Clancy," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Thursday, a day after the agency confirmed it had reassigned the two agents.

On March 4, the agents reportedly used their badges to pass through an area closed off for a bomb investigation, and then bumped their vehicle into a White House security barricade. The crash was more of a "slow roll," according to the administration official, who declined to be named while the investigation is ongoing.

Clancy immediately ordered the matter turned over to the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, which houses the Secret Service, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The latest investigation comes less than a month after Clancy took over the agency. Formerly head of the president's protective detail, Clancy took the post after a man armed with a pocket knife hopped the White House fence and made it into the building before being apprehended by agents, a major security breach that cost Clancy's predecessor her job.

One law enforcement expert argued that it was too early to judge Clancy, who took the helm Feb. 18 after doing the job for several months in an interim capacity.

"Things don't change overnight," said Edgar Domenech, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who worked at that agency during the reform following its failures that contributed to the siege and deadly fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

"There's a lead time, and it's unfair to say that he could have made all of these changes, to move the assistant directors around and bring in his own leadership team," Domenech said.

Some critics question whether Clancy has the independence needed to overhaul the Secret Service.

But it's his experience as a member of the elite protective detail that gives him authority to do exactly that, argued Domenech.

"He doesn't owe anybody anything," Domenech said. "It takes awhile for that accountability to filter down. … Those people in senior positions, they have to start asking questions because the boss is asking questions. Then the lower echelons start to see that. That's how you change a culture within an organization like that."

For the time being, it seems that Clancy will have a little room to work. Chaffetz and Cummings stopped short of blaming him for the two agents' behavior, even as the lawmakers pledged to keep the pressure on.

"The committee as a whole remains committed to restoring the integrity of this elite agency and improving accountability at all staff levels," the congressmen wrote.

christi.parsons@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
78°