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Washington • House Oversight and Government Affairs Chairman Jason Chaffetz on Wednesday released damning details of a probe into the Secret Service, showing sexually charged exchanges between agents protecting President Barack Obama and concluding that the high-profile service has systemic problems and security gaps.
"I've been looking at this for more than a year, and the more I've discovered, the more worried I've become," the Utah congressman said in a Salt Lake Tribune interview. He believes the agency is getting worse, not improving, adding "I think the president is in jeopardy."
Chaffetz, a Republican, and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, issued a joint report after launching a comprehensive investigation into security lapses and embarrassing actions by the high-profile police force.
In one email exchange uncovered by the committee, at least one agent was cavalier about his intentions for Obama's April 2012 trip to Cartagena, Colombia, where Secret Service officials were later found to have hired prostitutes.
"Swagg cologne-check/Pimp gear-check/Swagg sunglassescheck/Cash fo dem hoes-check," the unnamed agent wrote, according to the report. He later added to the exchange, "Plenty of magnums … double check!"
The report says that the Secret Service's lack of manpower, low morale and questions of leadership still haunt the agency despite assurances that improvements have been made.
"Since [the Cartegena scandal], several incidents have made it abundantly clear that USSS is in crisis," the report says. "The agency's weaknesses have been exposed by a series of security failures at the White House, during presidential visits, and at the residences of other officials, including Vice President [Joe] Biden and former presidents of the United States. The Committee's investigation found that problems that undermine USSS's protective mission predate and postdate the misconduct in Cartagena."
The Secret Service said in a statement Thursday that its leaders have acknowledged that the agency has work to do.
"Over the past year, under the leadership of Director Joseph Clancy, the Secret Service has taken a number of steps to address these challenges, including altering the way the Secret Service is structured and managed, striving to hire new members of its workforce, expanding training opportunities for current employees, and implementing the other recommendations of the independent Protective Mission Panel," the agency said.
Beyond that, the agency said that it is taking time to review the Oversight report and takes its concerns seriously.
"Addressing all of these challenges will take time and we are committed to continuing to improve the Secret Service, address its challenges, and build on its proud tradition of accomplishment," the agency said.
Progress report • Clancy told members of Congress in mid-November that "tremendous progress has been made in all areas" recommended by a panel organized in the wake of the security lapses.
"I am proud to say that we have significantly altered the way the Secret Service is structured and managed," Clancy said at the Nov. 17 hearing. "We have also made strides in hiring new members of our workforce and expanding training opportunities for current members. I'm also realistic in knowing that many of the changes we are making will take time and that we must continue to communicate these changes to our workforce."
The Oversight report states that Secret Service leaders "have provided incomplete and inaccurate information to Congress."
Beyond already widely reported incidents involving Secret Service agents including shots fired on the White House in November 2011 that weren't discovered for days and two intoxicated agents interfering with a crime scene involving a bomb threat the report notes other security concerns:
• In spring 2012, a Czech citizen with an expired visa entered the property of a former president and remained undetected for nearly an hour.
• In September 2014, a man posing as a member of Congress attended a Congressional Black Caucus awards dinner, broached a secure backstage area and spoke with Obama.
• In February 2015, two people gained access to the outer perimeter of the White House "simply by walking in unnoticed."
• In the last decade, there have been 143 security breaches or attempted breaches at protected facilities that resulted in an arrest, and only 13 of those incidents led to jail time for the offender.
Intimidation tactic? • During Chaffetz's investigation into the Secret Service, his rejected 2003 application to become an agent was viewed by some 45 agency employees and leaked publicly, despite its classification as private. An inspector general's report cited an email from an assistant director saying "Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out." Two days later his failed job application was first reported on a news website.
Chaffetz criticized the leak as an attempt to intimidate him, but insisted it had no impact on his investigation.
He said Wednesday the committee probe found agency problems have persisted over the tenure of three Secret Service directors, including Clancy. He said Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson and the president need to personally make changes, especially with an election coming up.
"Going into 2016 with massive resources needed to protect a variety of presidential candidates, plus the president, visiting dignitaries, it's hard for the Secret Service to keep up, and when you have people overworked and understaffed, that leads to mistakes," Chaffetz said.
He suggests that other federal law-enforcement officials, such as the FBI, may need to bolster the Secret Service's ranks next year. Chaffetz is considering legislation that would leave the service charged exclusively with protecting the president, presidential candidates and dignitaries. That change would remove the agency from investigation of cyber crimes, counterfeit currency and credit-card fraud.
The report notes problems with staffing critical positions and adds that the Secret Service's process for obtaining security clearances for its officials is three times faster than the pace recommended by the director of National Intelligence. Some of those clearance checks were done in as few as three days.
Short-staffed • The agency now has fewer employees than at any point in the last 10 years, the report says, and there is "widespread agreement that current staffing levels at USSS are wholly inadequate."
The "USSS is experiencing a staffing crisis that threatens to jeopardize its critical mission," the report says.
Cummings, Oversight's ranking Democrat, says the report isn't exactly what he'd write if he were in charge of the committee, but he believes it will find unanimous support when voted on next week. Congress needs to do its part, he added, to fully fund the agency.
"This bipartisan report warns that Congress cannot make some of the biggest budget cuts in the history of the Secret Service and expect no repercussions to the agency's staffing and its critical mission," Cummings said in a statement. "Reversing these problematic trends will require bipartisan and creative work by both the agency and Congress to ensure that the Secret Service is the lean, effective and respected organization we know it must be."
The Oversight report came out the same day a federal grand jury in Delaware indicted an employee of the Secret Service's Uniformed Division for one count of attempting to transfer obscene materials to a minor. The officer was assigned to the White House at the time of his arrest.