Exclusive: Secret Service director puts workforce on notice

February 29, 2024 | (Ginger Whitaker)
February 29, 2024 | Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy talks about being under fire, fixing the agency and moving forward. (JJ Green)

WASHINGTON — At 4 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2014, Bill, traveling south on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, came across the mangled remnants of two cars that had crashed. One of the vehicles was on fire and in danger of exploding, with someone still inside it.

Realizing he was in the middle of a life-and-death situation, “I went back and put his (the injured occupant’s) arm around my shoulder and I dragged him away from his vehicle,” Bill says.

He saved the man’s life.

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After first responders arrived, he proceeded to his job as a uniformed Secret Service officer. The public never heard about his story. Nor those of 11 others honored for their valor, heroism and achievements at the Secret Service Director’s Awards ceremony on Tuesday.

But about a dozen others, mostly unnamed Secret Service employees, have dominated the headlines for their lapses in judgment in recent years.

“We’re embarrassed and we’re angry that we’ve put ourselves in this position,” said Joseph P. Clancy, director of the Secret Service, in an exclusive interview with WTOP.

“Ninety-nine percent of our folks, who are doing the very stressful, very difficult mission, day in and day out, I couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Clancy, after the ceremony.

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy testifies on Capitol Hill on March 19, 2015, before the Senate subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management hearing to review the fiscal 2016 funding request and budget justification for the Secret Service.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy testifies on Capitol Hill on March 19, 2015, before the Senate subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management hearing to review the fiscal 2016 funding request and budget justification for the Secret Service. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Clancy, who retired from the agency in 2011, returned in October 2014 as acting director and was appointed to fill the director’s position in February after several high-profile blunders led to the resignation of Julia A. Pierson.

The stream of miscues started in 2009 with aspiring reality-TV personalities sneaking into a White House state dinner. A questionable investigation into a shooting near, but impacting, the White House in 2011 followed. In 2012, the agency was rocked by a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia.

An embarrassing public drunkenness episode took place in the Netherlands during a presidential visit in March 2014. Six months later, on Sept. 16, an armed private contractor with an arrest record was allowed on an elevator with President Barack Obama.

Three days later, a source tells WTOP, the trust and tolerance of some in the White House reached the breaking point when a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran scaled a fence, evaded several levels of security and advanced deep inside the White House.

Clancy has been buffeted by angry members of Congress and relentless questions from the public. But he’s not allowing the agency to flounder under the harsh spotlight on its missteps.

“We are sincerely committed. This is a very important mission. We know the American people are counting on us and we don’t like the position we’ve put ourselves in and we own that. We take full responsibility for that,” said Clancy.

While speaking at the awards ceremony he praised those who’ve excelled on the job, but sources say he sent a strong memo to the workforce over the weekend making it clear: “There will be no further tolerance of unforced errors and everyone will be held equally accountable regardless of rank or GS pay scale.”

Clancy outlined to WTOP parts of his plan for restoring the image of the agency, which features increased staffing.

“It will allow us to get more personnel out to training. That’s really critical. We’ve seen that some of our errors in the past have been because we haven’t trained to the level that we want to train.”

The agency has 6,500 employees, but that’s not enough.

“One of the things we’re diligently looking at is increasing our staffing. We are on schedule to have 10 classes of agents this year; approximately 216 new agents and more than 200 uniformed division officers will be hired this year.”

Clancy said the training will also lift morale by giving agents and officers more confidence in their abilities to perform often-stressful jobs.

The swift operational and robust pace the agency maintains demands extensive and specific preparation. In the last five years, the agency has provided protection on more than 30,000 foreign trips and more than two thousand domestic trips without harm coming to their protectees.

In addition to protecting the president, vice president, their wives and families, former presidents and non-traditional protectees (a small number of people protected by Secret Service because of presidential authorization), the agency often has a long list of foreign heads of state to look after. Last week, Washington received visits from the prime ministers of Iraq, Cote D’Ivoire, Kazakhstan, Italy and Antigua, and presidents from Guinea, Malawi, Liberia, Estonia and Panama.

Clancy also plans uniform punishment for employees who commit offenses. Last year, the agency produced a comprehensive volume detailing how conduct violations will be punished. Before, it was published internally, and a law enforcement source says there was no formal table of penalties.

There is also a standardized discipline board composed of deputy assistant directors from each of the agency’s eight directorates to consider cases. Previously, each directorate administered its own punishments, which often led to complaints that similar violations received different punishments.

As the agency quietly tries to rectify its mistakes and punishments are refined, some employees are quietly seething about the unwanted attention some colleagues have brought on them.

“There is a culture within the Secret Service, and there always has been, of an absolute zero tolerance of personal misconduct. Any agent knows that if you step out of line or bring any kind of undesirable attention to the agency, there are immediate grounds for dismissal,” said Dave Wilkinson, former assistant agent in charge of the Presidential Protective Detail during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Clancy and his staff are quick to point out that the agency has successfully completed more than 30,000 domestic protective trips and 2,000 abroad without incident over the last five years.

But they’re angry that the sometimes deliberate behavior of several people has landed the storied agency in an uncomfortable position where its motives and capabilities are questioned.

A Secret Service employee, who was recognized Tuesday as special agent of the year and preferred to remain anonymous, told WTOP his number-one goal each day was “to do the right thing.”

Clancy has made it clear that moving forward, those agents that don’t will be punished, because the agency, months away from its 150th anniversary, has too much at stake to lose the public’s trust.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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