WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Thursday that "significant concerns" have been raised by reports that scores of Secret Service employees accessed the unsuccessful job application of a congressman who was investigating agency scandals.
Spokesman Josh Earnest said, though, that President Barack Obama retained confidence in both the agency's director and that the "appropriate steps" will be taken to hold accountable any individuals who didn't follow proper procedures.
The Secret Service inspector general reported Wednesday that the actions by agency employees who looked at the personnel file of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, could amount to criminal violations of the U.S. Privacy Act.
"The report that was released does raise significant concerns about whether or not all those procedures were followed or at least whether those procedures were followed properly," Earnest told reporters. "The president certainly has confidence that the appropriate steps will be taken to hold accountable those who didn't follow procedures."
Earnest noted that Chaffetz has received apologies from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Secret Service Director Joe Clancy.
"When there are mistakes that are made, we've seen the director do the right thing, which is step up and take responsibility and offer an apology where it's appropriate, but also assure, not just congressman Chaffetz, but also the president and the American people that there will be accountability" he said.
The agency's initial response to the IG report "is a strong indication that there is effective leadership in place at the Secret Service," Earnest said.
The latest incident turned personal when an assistant director of the Secret Service even suggested leaking embarrassing information to retaliate against the Utah Republican, according to a report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, John Roth. His report said the actions could represent criminal violations under the U.S. Privacy Act.
"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 wrong," the report said.
Roth's latest report brought an abrupt end to a wave of applause for the agency's handling of Pope Francis's six-day tour of the United States. Chaffetz said he even wrote a letter congratulating the agency.
Then he learned about the full extent of a data breach first discovered when a story was published about his 2003 job application by The Daily Beast, on Internet publication.
"It's intimidating," Chaffetz said. "It's what it was supposed to be."
Jeh Johnson, who had apologized to Chaffetz when the report initially surfaced, personally apologized again to the congressman Wednesday, Chaffetz told The Associated Press in an interview on Capitol Hill. Johnson did not disclose whether any employees had been punished.
He said in a statement Wednesday that "those responsible should be held accountable" but did not provide further details.
"Activities like those described in the report must not, and will not, be tolerated," Johnson said.
Employees accessed Chaffetz's 2003 application for a Secret Service job starting 18 minutes after the start of a congressional hearing in March about the latest scandal involving drunken behavior by senior agents. Some forwarded the information to others. At least 45 employees viewed the file.
One week later, Assistant Director Ed Lowery suggested leaking embarrassing information about Chaffetz in retaliation for aggressive investigations by Chaffetz's committee into a series of agency missteps and scandals, the report said. Days later, on April 2, the information about Chaffetz unsuccessfully applying for a job at the Secret Service was published by The Daily Beast.
"Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair," Lowery wrote March 31 in an email to fellow Assistant Director Faron Paramore.
Chaffetz applied to join the Secret Service through a field office and was rejected and labeled "Better Qualified Applicant" for unknown reasons. Chaffetz said he never interviewed with the agency and does not know why his application was declined.
During the investigation Chaffetz's office learned that a photo of him from a committee hearing was posted in at least one Secret Service office. Across the top and bottom of the photo was written: GOT BQA BY THE SERVICE IN 2003 BECAME A CONGRESSMAN IN 2009.
Lowery, who is in charge of training, told the inspector general he did not direct anyone to release information about Chaffetz and "believed it would have been inappropriate to do so," the report said. He told Roth the email was "reflecting his stress and his anger."
Lowery declined to comment though a Secret Service spokesman.
Chaffetz told the AP that Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., 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."
Chaffetz said he was too close to the situation to judge what discipline should be meted out.
"It begs the question, why do these people have security clearances if they can't protect secret information," Chaffetz said. "It's stunning to think how pervasive it was. This wasn't one person who couldn't help themselves."
The investigation found that 18 supervisors or members of the agency's senior executive service knew or should have known that employees had improperly accessed Chaffetz's job application, but only one person attempted to inform Clancy. The inspector general said that under U.S. law and Secret Service rules, employees were required to report such behavior to supervisors.
Clancy said he was not aware of what was going on until April 1.
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