A top Secret Service official ordered its Washington Field Office to protect an employee whose family had been threatened by a neighbor, a job that probably fell outside the scope of the agency's general duties, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has concluded. But the "welfare check," as described by the Secret Service, lasted for parts of only five days, and none of the agents who conducted the protective surveillance in 2011 believed that the security of president or White House was compromised.
In the context of the Secret Service scandals, it's hard to know how this will play. There's not a lot of bang for the buck here. The inspector general's report does not exonerate the Secret Service for exhibiting poor judgment, but neither does it suggest that the surveillance was part of a pattern of decisions that endangered the president or his family.
Congressional critics will probably seize on the admission that a senior official told the Washington Field Office to use official resources to protect an employee for reasons seemingly unrelated to her job. It's an example, they will say, of how the agency protects its own.
In this case, though, the Secret Service supervisors responsible for the surveillance believe that they made the right call.
At the time, I asked a Secret Service agent who was familiar with the situation whether he thought the surveillance was improper. "Our employees are special. Those who have access to trusted secrets and to the White House, especially. If we erred, we erred on the side of caution."
Earlier this year, The Washington Post described what it called "Operation Moonlight" as the following:
Top Secret Service officials ordered members of a special unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter to abandon their posts over at least two months in 2011 in order to protect a personal friend of the agency’s director, according to three people familiar with the operation. [The Washington Post]
The Post wrote that director Mark Sullivan personally ordered the surveillance.
But the investigation found that A.T. Smith, the Secret Service's assistant director for investigations, tasked the job to the Washington Field Office and only later notified Sullivan. The investigation also found that supervisors from several shifts at the Washington Field Office decided on their own to use the on-duty "Prowler" team to conduct what they saw was a "welfare check" for an employee who had access to some of the agency's most sensitive secrets. After a temporary restraining order was obtained by the employee against her neighbor, the surveillance stopped.
Two senior Secret Service officials, Smith and deputy director Keith Prewitt, told investigators that "the rural location of the employee's residence, the lack of police coverage, and the employee's previous history" concerned them. They also noted that she was a White House pass holder and had access to the Secret Service Director's Office, which includes a specially protected room for highly classified briefings. Federal law enforcement agencies can't use their powers, people, and equipment for purposes unrelated to the laws they enforce. The Secret Service, in this case, interpreted this law broadly. "You look after your people," Prewitt told investigators.
Investigators did not find any Secret Service regulation that prevented employees from using agency resources to protect or help an employee with problems unrelated to her job. But investigators do suggest, in the opaque way that government lawyers write, that the surveillance was not a proper use of Secret Service resources because it involved no crime and did not involve any threat to property protected by the Secret Service. The employee's personal friendship with agency officials created the appearance that the diversion of resources was related to their relationship, and not to any potential violations of the law, according to the report.
The status of Prowler, a roving surveillance unit assigned to the Washington Field Office, has long been a subject of conflict between the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) and its bosses back at Secret Service headquarters. The PPD wanted Prowler assigned to it full time. But the field office made the case that it used Prowler for a variety of missions and that the vehicle, a black SUV bristling with radios, surveillance equipment, and other technology, should stay under its control. Prowler has several times been the Secret Service command post at major incidents around the city. It has been used to conduct surveillance of people who have threatened the president. The field office would order Prowler to the White House complex to provide extra surveillance when the president departed the South Lawn from Marine One, complementing the manpower and technology used by agents and officers assigned to the president.