WASHINGTON — The latest in a string of baffling missteps by the Secret Service prompted fresh questions Thursday about whether the Obama administration has done enough to root out deep-seated problems plaguing the agency — and President Barack Obama's decision to put an insider in charge despite his administration's own review that called for exactly the opposite.
The White House said Obama still has full confidence in recently appointed Director Joseph Clancy, despite a new investigation into two agents accused of driving into White House security barrier after drinking. While declining to discuss the investigation, Obama's aides described Clancy as the right man to fix problems.
"Nobody has higher standards for the Secret Service than Director Clancy," said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Yet lawmakers charged with overseeing the agency were aghast and wondered how — after intense national scrutiny and a rotating cast of directors — the Secret Service still hasn't corrected problems involving behavior of its agents. In a rare move, the top Republican and Democrat on the House's oversight panel joined forces to say that while many of the agency's top leaders have already been replaced, "this incident begs the question of whether that is enough."
"Clearly this incident is a major wake-up call," the Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said later in an interview.
The two senior agents — including Mark Connolly, the No. 2 on Obama's security detail — had been with other agents drinking at a bar last week when they returned to the White House in a government car, a U.S. official said. The vehicle entered an area already closed off by the Secret Service, who were investigating a suspicious package and had put the White House on lockdown. Officers on the scene saw the agents' car, traveling slowly, make contact with a barrier, the official said.
A surveillance video at the White House captured the entire incident, the official said. Congressional staffers were briefed Thursday on the video's contents.
In a stroke of irony, the agents had been attending a retirement party for the Secret Service's spokesman, Ed Donovan, whose job for many years involved answering questions from the press after other embarrassing incidents.
Obama knew both agents personally. The two have been reassigned to nonsupervisory, non-operational jobs, a second official said. The officials weren't authorized to comment on an ongoing investigation and requested anonymity.
The Secret Service's response to the incident, first disclosed by the Washington Post, has also come under scrutiny amid a report by that newspaper that a supervisor directed officers on-scene not to perform a field sobriety test on the two agents, and to let them go home. Cummings said that raised serious questions about whether Secret Service agents believe they can follow their own set of rules.
Cummings and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the chairman of the oversight committee, sent a letter Thursday to Clancy asking him to brief them on the incident and provide the panel with any video footage, photographs or audio recordings.
"The bottom line is the Secret Service has to be overhauled," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "What happened the other day shows we have a ways to go and that the overhaul is needed soon and very deeply."
Yet with Obama standing by Clancy, it remained unclear what additional steps could or would be taken to bring the struggling agency in line.
When former Director Mark Sullivan resigned in 2013, the year after a drinking-and-prostitution scandal in Colombia rocked the agency, Obama tapped longtime Secret Service agent Julia Pierson to take over amid hopes she would change the male-dominated culture. Less than two years later, Pierson resigned abruptly in the wake of security breaches.
First, a man with a knife who scaled the White House fence made it far inside the mansion before agents stopped him. Then, as lawmakers started asking questions, it came to light that the Secret Service earlier had improperly allowed Obama to share an elevator in Atlanta with an armed, private guard — and failed to tell him about it after the fact.
Amid a public uproar, the Obama administration commissioned an outside report by former senior government officials that concluded the agency was too insular — and recommended that Obama bring in an outsider to whip the agency into shape. Obama ignored that recommendation and brought in Clancy — a retired agent who once ran Obama's security detail — as interim director, then named him to the full post in February.
The storied Secret Service, despite its reputation as the world's leading protective agency, has a history of alcohol-related incidents.
In 2012, an officer was arrested after passing out drunk on a Miami street corner about 12 hours after a presidential visit. Two years later an agent was involved in a drunken incident during a trip to the Netherlands. That same year two agents in Florida were involved in a traffic accident that reportedly involved alcohol.