The Secret Service has had a bad couple of years, with prostitution scandals and security gaps that have embarrassed the agency — and in one instance, had an intruder running through the White House. As part of the effort to bolster security around the President, the agency has gone on a hiring spree, bringing in fresh talent to address some of the recent failures. The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, who has reported more than a few of those failures, now reports that the rush to man the posts has resulted in agents working in sensitive areas without the proper clearances, including the White House:
A rush to recruit additional Secret Service officers in the wake of numerous White House security lapses has led to a new problem: Several dozen of the fresh arrivals have been posted in sensitive positions without completing the required national security clearance process, according to two government officials familiar with the situation.
Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy acknowledged the problem last week during a private conversation with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). The lawmaker had raised the issue after hearing from a whistleblower who alleged that newly hired officers had been present for White House meetings in which classified material was shared, Meadows told The Washington Post.
Clancy promised to fix the situation as soon as possible, a Secret Service official said Tuesday. The official said the agency is struggling to work through an “administrative backlog” in issuing security clearances with the higher-than-normal volume of new hires.
Clancy apparently told Meadows that the issue had mostly been resolved, and that the final 10 agents lacking clearances would have them by the end of this week. Meadows called that “very puzzling” when Leonnig asked about it:
“Without the clearance, you could share information by mistake,” Meadows said. “I trust everyone on my staff, but there are only a few with a top-secret clearance. They know the zero tolerance that any of us have for inappropriately sharing this information.”
Clancy himself is relatively new to the post. He had retired as the head of Barack Obama’s security detail, but returned in October of last year after Julia Pierson resigned in the wake of the White House intrusion. His return to the Secret Service has been rocky, to say the least. Two of his agents blundered into a potential bomb in March and were suspected of driving while intoxicated, and someone in the agency leaked Rep. Jason Chaffetz’ failed application from years before in a clumsy attempt to shut down his criticism of the Secret Service.
Meadows’ skepticism on the timing seems justified. Just how long have these background checks taken, anyway? There isn’t necessarily a time limit on these investigations; it depends on resources, priorities, and the availability of people for interviews. How Clancy could be certain that everything would conclude by Friday is a bit of a mystery. One assumes that the whistleblower exposure put the background checks on the highest priority, but with the mission of protecting the President and the White House, one has to wonder why it wasn’t at that priority already — and why more experienced and cleared personnel weren’t brought in for these assignments instead. The Secret Service can’t be that short on staff, can it?
With all that said, this may be somewhat less of an issue than it sounds. These men and women are in the process of getting their proper clearances, and have almost certainly passed initial background verification. Top-secret clearances take much longer, but that doesn’t mean all other background checks don’t take place. In order to get hired, these agents generally have previous law-enforcement experience, and have already passed a series of interviews and tests. Clancy may have told Meadows that the clearances would be completed by this week because the investigations have finished, with just the reports and final paperwork left to be produced. Had derogatories emerged, those could have been communicated immediately to the Secret Service and the employment terminated as a result.
Still, this is a measure of dysfunction that should have been resolved long ago. Clancy’s tenure hasn’t shown much evidence of improvement in the agency, but he deserves more than eight months to right the ship, especially given his 27 years of service. Congress had better make clear that their patience has limits, though, and Clancy may be approaching them.