How I unfairly maligned two Secret Service agents in POLITICO Magazine
It seemed like a refrain: News reports surfaced on March 11 about an incident at the White House involving drunken Secret Service agents. The first accounts (by multiple news sources, both print and television) suggested that the agents' conduct was egregious and even cartoonish.
They had left a "late night" party, drunk, had driven to the White House, slammed through multiple "security barricades" and disrupted technicians who were trying to determine whether a nearby suspicious package was a bomb.
The two agents' identities were published: Mark Connolly, the assistant special agent in charge of the president's detail, and George Ogilvie, a supervisor at the Washington Field Office.
The Washington Post reported that officers on duty wanted to arrest the agents, but a supervisor told them not to.
Barely a month into the tenure of the new director, Joseph Clancy, and two of his top guys are getting busted for an alcohol-fueled drunken-driving cover-up. That's the way the headlines framed the story. It seemed to fit the pattern of misconduct that cast a pall over the storied agency.
But the original story (as reported by multiple news outlets) now seems to be greatly exaggerated and includes information that isn't correct. In fact, the agents in question deserve an apology from those of us to who repeated the facts without slowing down and bothering to check them out.
The party, a retirement celebration for Ed Donovan, the agency's former top spokesman, ended at 7:30 pm.
It played essentially no role in the incident, except for the fact that the two agents in question had attended it much earlier in the evening. The agents' whereabouts for the next three hours are more relevant to the story, but since they aren't known yet, reporting that they drove to the White House after leaving the party of a colleague plays into a familiar recital: namely, that agents at the party failed to take the two men aside and intervene before they drove off. I bought into it, not knowing otherwise.
But we don't even know if alcohol had anything to do with the argument at the scene. We don't know if the agents, being off-duty, created friction by appearing on-scene during a tense moment. We don't know whether the agents tried to pull rank, asserting their right to bypass the temporary barricades because of their role. We don't know if the agents were even drunk, a point that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), an agency critic, made to CNN Tuesday.
We do know that, contrary to the reporting, the suspicious package wasn't disrupted, the agents were inching forward in their government-owned vehicle at a pace of maybe one to two miles per hour, and that, at worst, they grazed a barricade. (The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone has a good round-up of the discrepancies here.)
Something did happen that night. And Clancy, the director, did not learn about the episode until several days later. He acknowledged Tuesday, in Congressional testimony that's been described as "nervous," that the incident brought him embarrassment and even bewilderment. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is investigating.
There's accountability, then, on two levels: Congress and an independent team from DHS.
But what about accountability for those of us who basically repeated the factually untrue, derogatory information about the agents?
The New York Post wrote of agents "drunkenly slamming into a White House barricade." False.
Even worse was this:
"This latest incident — where two high ranking Secret Service agents, while drunk, allegedly drove themselves into a crash barrier at the White House, disrupting a tense investigation into a suspicious package nearby, is heartbreaking."
I wrote that, in an opinion piece for POLITICO Magazine. Notice where I put the adverb "allegedly." I'm embarrassed I wrote that sentence. I further suggested that the incident smacks of the behavior of "high functioning alcoholics." I had no right to say that, at all. (POLITICO Magazine stands by the piece and doesn't think an apology is necessary — but I think I was wrong.)
I do think that the Secret Service has an alcohol abuse problem; what we know about the March 4 incident tells us nothing about it.
I have no excuse other than that I was basing my opinion on the facts that other news outlets had reported. Because I've long admired the Secret Service, I went off the deep end when I read about the latest incident. I should have slowed down and waited until we knew more.
Jon Stewart, of all people, took them — us — to task on Monday night, wondering whether anyone will hold us accountable.
Even The Washington Post now notes that the incident seems "milder" than initially reported.
The problem with stories like these is that the initial impressions stick, and the corrections don't. The press can report something fantastic, blast out a bunch of inaccuracies, and then slowly walk it back over a few days, until the original story no longer even resembles the current version. All I can really do is to write about my mistake.
So: Mark Connolly and George Ogilvie, I'm sorry for what I wrote.
Editor's note: After this article was published, additional details were added in parentheses in the first and sixth paragraphs.