Secret Service agents disrupted bomb investigation at White House
By Carol D. Leonnig and Peter Hermann March 12
Two Secret Service agents suspected of being under the influence while striking a White House security barricade drove through an active bomb investigation and directly beside the suspicious package, according to current and former government officials familiar with the incident.
These and other new details about the March 4 incident emerged Thursday from interviews and from police records obtained by The Washington Post.
The revelations spurred fresh questions Thursday from lawmakers about whether the newly appointed director of the Secret Service, Joseph P. Clancy, is capable of turning around the troubled agency.
Among lawmakers’ questions was whether Clancy, a 27-year Secret Service veteran appointed to his job last month after a string of embarrassing agency missteps, has been aggressive enough in his handling of last week’s incident.
Clancy placed the two senior agents involved in the incident in new “non-supervisory, non-operational” jobs pending an investigation — a less stringent approach than the service has taken in the past, when staffers suspected of misconduct were put on administrative leave or pressed to resign or accept demotion. Also, Clancy did not take action against a senior supervisor on duty that night who, according to officials briefed on the incident, ordered Secret Service officers to let the agents go home without giving them sobriety tests.
Through a spokesman, Clancy declined to comment on the case, saying he had referred the matter to be investigated by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.
Clancy has told lawmakers he learned of the allegations Monday, according to people familiar with the discussions. That is five days after the incident, which involved two of his most senior agents, including a top member of President Obama’s protective detail.
Lawmakers did not learn of the episode, however, until it was reported by The Post on Wednesday.
On Thursday night, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), sent Clancy a letter asking for a detailed briefing on the incident, which they called “extremely serious” and said raised concerns about the path to reforming the agency.
“This incident also raises important questions about what additional steps should be taken to reform the agency and whether the problems at the USSS run deeper than the recently replaced top-tier of management,” they wrote.
The lawmakers also cited the “zero tolerance” policy the service said it followed when it immediately moved to recall agents suspected of drinking during the job on presidential trips to the Florida Keys and Amsterdam in 2014, saying that standard “should apply to USSS managers and leadership just as it does to rank-and-file personnel.” The statement of zero tolerance was made in April 2014 by the agency’s then-spokesman, George Ogilvie — one of the agents now under investigation in connection with the incident last week.
Chaffetz said Thursday he was concerned that the events of March 4 suggest some in the Secret Service feel they are above the law. “The director needs to send a message. He needs to signal there is going to be new accountability in the agency,” he said. “We’re still learning all the facts, but I’m still not very impressed by how this is going.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Thursday that the president retains full confidence in Clancy. Schultz said Obama learned about the incident “earlier this week” before The Post’s report and was “disappointed” by the news.
The March 4 incident unfolded on a hectic night for Secret Service officers guarding the White House.
About 10:25 that night, a woman hopped out of a blue Toyota near the southeast entrance of the White House on 15th Street NW and, holding a package wrapped in a green shirt, approached an agent.
“I’m holding a [expletive] bomb!” she yelled, according to a government official with knowledge of the incident.
The woman then put the object on the ground and retreated to her car, the official said. The agent ran to the car and opened the front passenger-side door and ordered the woman to get out. But she then put the car in reverse and accelerated, striking the agent with the open door. The agent reached inside the car and forced it into park, said the government official, but the woman was able to shift it back into drive and drive forward, again hitting the agent and forcing him to jump out of the way.
The woman then sped off.
Police quickly secured the area with tape and called an inspection team to check the package for potential explosive materials or other dangers.
But shortly before 11 p.m., the two high-ranking Secret Service agents, returning from a work party at a Chinatown bar about eight blocks from the White House, drove their government car through the crime scene. According to people familiar with the incident, they drove through police tape and then hit a temporary barricade, using the car to push aside some barrels. An agency official said Thursday that the car was not damaged.
The episode was caught on surveillance video. Investigators who reviewed the video of the incident initially said they could not be sure whether the pair drove very close to or over the suspicious item wrapped in the shirt, one law enforcement official said. But after reviewing more video later Thursday afternoon, the official said, they concluded that the agents’ government car drove directly next to the package.
Secret Service officers on duty that night considered the agents’ behavior to be erratic and suspected they were drunk, according to current and former officials familiar with the incident.
The officers wanted to arrest the agents — but a more senior supervisor at the complex told them to let the agents go, the officials said.
At 11:45 p.m. Wednesday, the police explosives team determined the suspicious item was not a threat and gave the complex the all-clear. The item was a book.
Secret Service officers found the woman they suspected in the incident two days later to question her about the threats on the White House, an agency official said. A police record said that she is from Pennsylvania and has had contact with the Secret Service in the past and that the agency had her photo on file.
On Thursday, a government official said a warrant for the woman’s arrest had been issued through a D.C. court, charging her with assault with a dangerous weapon, the car. The warrant remains sealed, and it was unclear Thursday whether the woman was in custody.
The Secret Service agents under investigation are Marc Connolly, the second-in-command on Obama’s detail, and Ogilvie, a senior supervisor in the Washington field office. Both men have declined to comment.
Alice Crites, David Nakamura and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.
Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.