The Secret Service may be able to take a bullet for the president or prevent counterfeiting, but the agency can't seem to stop a string of embarrassing missteps and serious lapses.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig scored the latest in her series of scoops about the chaos and lack of discipline at the agency, reporting that two senior agents hit a security barrier near the White House in a government car last week. The men had been out drinking, celebrating the retirement of the agency's spokesman. When they reached the White House, their car barreled through temporary barriers blocking an active bomb investigation—and they may have even driven over the suspicious package.
Officers on duty apparently wanted to administer a sobriety test, but a supervisor instructed them to let the culprits go home.
"The episode presents an early test for the Secret Service’s new director, Joseph P. Clancy, who was appointed by Obama last month after a string of security lapses at the White House and other embarrassing missteps and had vowed to restore the agency’s once-stellar reputation," Leonnig wrote, perhaps understating the damage. Another way to put it is that the Secret Service has been a rolling disaster, with almost too many breaches to keep track of ... but here are the lowlights of the last four years:
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June-August 2011: Agents in a unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter are yanked from their posts and assigned to protect the home of a personal friend of then-Director Mark Sullivan. Sullivan believed a neighbor was harassing his buddy. A top Secret Service officer sent agents to guard her home for several weeks. According to an inspector general's report, Sullivan knew of the move, though he has disputed this.* The reassignment isn't revealed until May 2014.
November 11, 2011: A gunman parks near the White House and fires at least seven bullets at the building. While Barack and Michelle Obama are not at home, their daughter Sasha and the first lady's mother are. The gunman, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, is arrested, but as The Post reported in September 2014, the Secret Service badly botched the incident. Agents decided that shots had been crossfire from a gang fight and not aimed at the White House, and conducted only a cursory investigation. As a result, they only realized bullets had hit the building four days later, when a housekeeper noticed glass and cement inside that had been damaged.
April 23, 2012: The Post reports that about a dozen agents have been sent home from a presidential trip to Colombia for misconduct including hiring prostitutes—a semi-legal activity where it occurred, but one that is nevertheless banned for Secret Service agents.
May 2013: A supervisor in an elite Secret Service detail is caught trying to re-enter a woman's room at the Hay-Adams, a fancy Washington hotel, after mistakenly leaving a bullet there. During the course of an investigation, it emerges that he and another officer also both sent inappropriate messages to a female subordinate.
March 23, 2014: Three Secret Service agents are sent home from a presidential trip to the Netherlands after being found passed out drunk in a hotel hallway in Amsterdam.
September 16, 2014: Secret Service agents allow an armed security guard to be on an elevator with President Obama during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta—a violation of protocol. Agents became upset because the man was filming Obama on his cellphone; it was only later that they realized he was also carrying a gun. (Initial reports falsely stated that the man was a felon.) The incident does not become public for more than a week.
September 19, 2014: Omar Gonzalez, a knife-wielding Iraq War veteran, leaps over the White House fence, runs through the front door of the executive mansion (which was unlocked, counter to protocol), and moves through most of the bottom floor—passing a staircase with access to the presidential living quarters—before finally being apprehended by Secret Service agents. A front-door alarm had been muted, and several agents in Gonzalez's path failed to stop him. The full extent of his penetration into the White House does not emerge for several days.
September 30, 2014: Secret Service Director Julia Pierson appears before a House committee to testify about security lapses. It's a disaster. Members of Congress hammer Pierson, who seems to have few answers and loses any remaining confidence from members of Congress in both parties.
October 1, 2014: Pierson resigns from her post. Joseph Clancy, a retired former senior officer, is appointed interim director.
October 22, 2014: A man jumps the White House fence, but he is stopped by Secret Service dogs.
October 29, 2014: The investigator charged with researching the 2012 prostitution scandal in Colombia is himself forced to resign after being arrested during an investigation into prostitution in Florida.
December 18, 2014: A panel of outside experts delivers a report to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, offering recommendations for how to solve the challenges facing the agency. The one that gets the most attention is a suggestion that the fence around the White House be made taller, following breaches of the security cordon. "But the problems exposed by recent events go deeper than a new fence can fix," the report's executive summary stated. "The Panel found an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability."
January 13, 2015: The agency announces that four assistant directors, the chiefs of Secret Service divisions, were being fired, with the option to either retire or be reassigned. A fifth and final division director had already announced his retirement.
February 18, 2015: Obama appoints Clancy to be the permanent director of the Secret Service, although the expert panel had called for an outsider to run the agency.
March 4, 2015: Two senior agents run into a White House security barrier after drinking at a party for the agency's retiring spokesman. One of the men was second-in-command of President Obama's detail. The men drove through security tape and into the midst of an active bomb investigation, The Post reported Thursday. In fact, they may have run over the suspicious package.
* This post originally stated that Sullivan sent agents to guard the home. We regret the error.