When the Boss Is Last to Know: Chaffetz Snoops at the Secret Service

Posted: 1:06 pm EDT
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The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General has completed its independent investigation into allegations that one or more Secret Service agents improperly accessed internal databases to look up the 2003 employment application of Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The Inspector General has confirmed that between March 24 and April 2, 2015, on approximately 60 different occasions, 45 Secret Service employees accessed Chaffetz’ sensitive personal information. The OIG concluded that only 4 of the 45 employees had an arguable legitimate need to access the information.

Here is the IG’s conclusion:

This episode reflects an obvious lack of care on the part of Secret Service personnel as to the sensitivity of the information entrusted to them. It also reflects a failure by the Secret Service management and leadership to understand the potential risk to the agency as events unfolded and react to and prevent or mitigate the damage caused by their workforce’s actions.

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via dhs/oig

All personnel involved – the agents who inappropriately accessed the information, the mid-level supervisors who understood what was occurring, and the senior leadership of the Service – bear responsibility for what occurred. Better and more frequent training is only part of the solution. Ultimately, while the responsibility for this activity can be fairly placed on the shoulders of the agents who casually disregarded important privacy rules, the Secret Service leadership must do a better job of controlling the actions of its personnel. The Secret Service leadership must demonstrate a commitment to integrity. This includes setting an appropriate tone at the top, but more importantly requires a commitment to establishing and adhering to standards of conduct and ethical and reasonable behavior. Standards of conduct and ethics are meaningful only if they are enforced and if deviations from such standards are dealt with appropriately.

It doesn’t take a lawyer explaining the nuances of the Privacy Act to know that the conduct that occurred here – by dozens of agents in every part of the agency – was simply wrong. The agents should have known better. Those who engaged in this behavior should be made to understand how destructive and corrosive to the agency their actions were. These agents work for an agency whose motto – “worthy of trust and confidence” – is engraved in marble in the lobby of their headquarters building. Few could credibly argue that the agents involved in this episode lived up to that motto. Given the sensitivity of the information with which these agents are entrusted, particularly with regard to their protective function, this episode is deeply disturbing.

Additionally, it is especially ironic, and troubling, that the Director of the Secret Service was apparently the only one in the Secret Service who was unaware of the issue until it reached the media. At the March 24th hearing, he testified that he was “infuriated” that he was not made aware of the March 4th drinking incident. He testified that he was “working furiously to try to break down these barriers where people feel that they can’t talk up the chain.” In the days after this testimony, 18 supervisors, including his Chief of Staff and the Deputy Director, were aware of what was occurring. Yet, the Director himself did not know. When he became aware, he took swift and decisive action, but too late to prevent his agency from again being subject to justified criticism.

Read the full report here. Check out Appendix 1 for the chronological access to the Chaffetz record which includes multiple field offices, including the London office. Appendix 2 is the timeline of record access.

We can’t remember anything like this happening in the recent past.  There was the 1992 passportgate, of course, which involves a presidential candidate, but that’s not quite the same. In 2009, the DOJ said that a ninth individual pleaded guilty for illegally accessing numerous confidential passport application files, although it was for what’s considered “idle curiosity.”

Whether the intent of the Chaffetz record breach was to embarrass a sitting congressman or curiosity (not everyone who looked at the files leak it to the media), the files are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, and access by employees is strictly limited to official government duties. Only 4 of the 45 employees who did access the Chaffetz records had a legitimate reason to access the protected information. If the DOJ pursued 9 State Department employees for peeking at the passport records of politicians and celebrities, we can’t imagine that it could simply look away in this case. Particularly in this case.  Winter is definitely coming to the Secret Service.

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