Secret Service agents improperly diverted attention from their job monitoring the area near the White House to conduct welfare checks of a fellow agent’s home in suburban Maryland following a private dispute.
That is the finding of Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth who sent a report detailing the special operation to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Though the unit that performed the unofficial checks — the Prowler unit — was not directly responsible for protecting the president, its agents typically monitor the area around the White House. President Obama was present at the White House on two days while the special watch mission was taking place.
The incident stretches back to June 30, 2011, when an assistant to the Office of the Director at the Secret Service says she was harassed by a neighbor. The neighbor assaulted her father, who lost several teeth in the altercation.
The employee passed news of the incident up the chain of command where it eventually reached deputy director Keith Prewitt.
Described by the employee as “friend of the family,” Prewitt instructed A.T. Smith, the assistant director of investigations at the time, to help. Smith dispatched agents with the Prowler unit to check on the employee’s home.
Both deputy director Prewitt and agency director Mark Sullivan were made aware of the checks, the inspector general’s report states.
Prowler, the report describes, consists of a rotating team of two plain-clothes agents “who respond to suspicious persons and situations in and around the White House and the National Capital Region.”
They are not part of the presidential detail.
The mission, dubbed “operation moonshine” or “operation moonlight,” involved the Prowler team driving 50 minutes one way to the employee’s home in Charles County, Maryland. Once there, the agents would park in front of the home for between 15 minutes and two hours to ensure that there were no issues with the neighbor.
During the inspector general’s investigation, agents could not pin-point the total length of time of the mission. Some agents said it lasted for one week while another estimated it lasted for a month.
After checking log sheets for agents’ movements, the inspector general determined that the security detail did not last past July 5, when the employee obtained a restraining order against her neighbor.
The administrators who approved the security detail told the inspector general they believed it was warranted. Smith cited the rural location of the employee’s home, the neighbor’s history with the family and the lack of police coverage in the area.
“You look after your people,” said then-deputy director Prewitt, who added that he would approve the surveillance again.
None of the supervisors or agents said they believed the operation distracted from the protection of the President, but inspector general Roth determined otherwise.
“The records we reviewed show that, other than the welfare checks, they focused primarily on the area around the White House,” Roth reported.
The Prowler team was out-of-pocket for three-and-a-half hours on July 2, five hours on July 3, and for a total of 12 hours on July 5.
“In each of these instances, the Prowler team would have been unable to respond to exigencies at the White House,” the report states, noting that President Obama was at the White House on July 1 and July 5.
“These agents, who were there to protect the President and the White House, were improperly diverted for an impermissible purpose. This constituted a serious lapse in judgment,” wrote Roth. “The Secret Service’s mission is to protect the President of the United States, and not to involve itself in an employee’s purely private dispute best handled by the local police.”
The report is the latest black eye for the Secret Service. The most prominent came in April 2012, when ten agents were fired after it was discovered that they had hired prostitutes while on duty in Cartegena, Colombia during a presidential visit. And last month a man was able to scale the White House fence. He overpowered a Secret Service agent and was able enter near the first family’s residence where he was tackled by another agent.