Privacy vs. the Secret Service

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Oct. 2:


At 10 a.m. on March 24 of this year, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, began a hearing into allegations of misbehavior by Secret Service agents. At 10:18, Chaffetz’s name was entered into a database at the agency’s headquarters and the search turned up the confidential information that the congressman had applied for a position with the Secret Service in 2003 but hadn’t been hired.

In ensuing days, dozens of Secret Service employees gleefully accessed the information about Chaffetz. Like teenagers texting their friends, the agents spread the message far and wide. According to a recent report by Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth, “One agent reported that by the end of the second day, he was sent on a protection assignment in New York City for the visit of the president of Afghanistan, and many of the approximately 70 agents at the protection briefing were talking about the issue.”

One official thought it would be a good idea if the information had even wider circulation. According to the inspector general’s report, Assistant Director Ed Lowery emailed a colleague: “Some information that (Chaffetz) might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair.” Lowery denied directing anyone to release the information, and Roth said he had no information to the contrary. But somehow the information got out. On April 2, The Daily Beast posted a story with the headline: “Congressman Who Oversees Secret Service Was Rejected by Secret Service.”

The misuse of Chaffetz’s confidential file was not only unprofessional but possibly illegal. Roth notes that “Chaffetz’s application was protected by the Privacy Act, and each disclosure of information … to an individual without a need to know it … constituted a violation” of that law.

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy, who was apparently kept in the dark about the improper access of Chaffetz’s file, said last week that he would ensure that “appropriate disciplinary actions are taken” and that he would “demand the highest level of integrity of all our employees.” As for Lowery, it’s impossible to see how he could credibly continue in his position now that it’s known that he broached the idea of retaliating against a congressional critic by divulging confidential information.

Using the machinery of government to invade the privacy of political opponents is outrageous whether the intended target is a private citizen or a member of Congress, but there is something especially chilling about the idea of a government agency targeting an elected official who is charged with overseeing it. An apology isn’t enough. The Secret Service needs to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.


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