At 10 a.m. on March 24, Rep. Jason Chaffetz convened a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to look into scandals involving the Secret Service.
Eighteen minutes later, a Secret Service agent improperly accessed the agency’s restricted database to unearth unflattering information about the Utah Republican — namely, that he had once unsuccessfully applied for a job with the agency.
Days later, an assistant director in the Secret Service suggested that the embarrassing information should be made public in retaliation for the congressman’s embarrassing probe.
An investigation into the eventual leak of the information by the Department Homeland Security’s inspector general found that, in all, at least 45 Secret Service agents accessed the Chaffetz file, potential criminal violations of the U.S. Privacy Act. Some took screenshots of the information in the database and forwarded them to others. Eighteen supervisors, including Assistant Director Edward Lowery suggesting leaking the information, knew that the file was being circulated widely around the agency.
“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,” wrote DHS Inspector General John Roth in a highly critical report released Wednesday. “The agents should have known better.”
Mr. Chaffetz said Wednesday that the action by Secret Service agents to access and distribute his personal information, as detailed in the IG’s report, crossed the line.
“It was a tactic designed to intimidate and embarrass me and, frankly, it is intimidating,” he said.
Mr. Chaffetz had applied for a job with the agency in 2003, but he was never called for an interview.
At the time the information was leaked to the press, Mr. Chaffetz, who chairs the House oversight panel, was leading a series of inquiries into a string of scandals involving the Secret Service. During the March 24 hearing, he angrily grilled Secret Service Director Joe Clancy, demanding answers about an incident during which two intoxicated Secret Service agents blundered onto a crime scene.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson apologized to Mr. Chaffetz for the privacy breach Wednesday and said that those responsible would be held accountable.
“With the investigation completed, I am confident that U.S. Secret Service Director Joe Clancy will take appropriate action to hold accountable those who violated any laws or the policies of this department,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “Activities like those described in the report must not, and will not, be tolerated.”
Mr. Clancy said he did not learn of the effort to access the congressman’s file while he was testifying before the committee until a week later on April 1.
The inspector general’s report named some but not all of the agents involved in the incident. It included an email sent by Mr. Lowery to another assistant director in the agency.
“Some information that [Mr. Chaffetz] might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair,” Mr. Lowery wrote in a March 31 email that acknowledged that contents from the file were being circulated within the service.
Mr. Lowery later told investigators that he did not actually release the information to the public.
Mr. Chaffetz told the Associated Press that Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, would conduct any congressional oversight hearings into the matter. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said anyone at the agency “unwilling or unable to meet the highest of ethical standards should not be a part of the Secret Service.”