The new chief of the Secret Service today insisted recent reports of a “crash” at the White House by potentially intoxicated agents driving a government vehicle “are inaccurate,” and he pushed back on any suggestion that his agency deliberately "erased" surveillance video showing the incident.
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“There was no crash,” Director Joseph Clancy told a Senate panel during his second appearance before lawmakers this week. “There was no damage to the vehicle.”
Indeed, the video of the March 4 incident he has reviewed shows the vehicle driving at a speed of about 2 mph before “pushing aside a plastic barrel” standing outside of a White House checkpoint, according to Clancy. Earlier this week, he said the barrel was “nudged” by the government vehicle but did not fall over.
With several cameras in the area of the White House, video from certain angles of the incident were lost because, “by practice,” the cameras tape over their content every 72 hours, Clancy said. Nothing was deliberately “erased,” he added.
Nevertheless, he said he has instructed his staff to contact the manufacturer of the cameras to see whether the company that built them can help retrieve the lost video.
"We understand it’s a concern,” he said. “We're doing everything we can to retrieve those images and be as transparent as we can be."
Clancy also said “there’s no question” the practice of taping over surveillance video every 72 hours needs to change. He said the practice began before he became director, and it has been based on privacy concerns that extended archives of surveillance video could amount to “databases" of those visiting the White House or walking the streets around it.
Speaking before a House panel Tuesday, Clancy acknowledged that how he handles this controversy is a "first test" for him as he tries to chart a new course for the Secret Service. Clancy reiterated frustration that it took his personnel five days to inform him of the allegations that two senior-level Secret Service agents were "inebriated" and crashed into the White House grounds.
That delay “is unacceptable” and “puzzles me, but it’s not going to happen again,” according to Clancy. He said he held a senior-staff meeting to “ma[k]e clear” that he needs to be promptly notified about such allegations, and he promised lawmakers that any Secret Service employee found to have concealed information “will be held accountable.”
“Our mission is too important for this to happen,” he said. “It undermines my leadership, and I won’t stand for it.”
The agents driving the government vehicle, Mark Connolly and George Ogilvie, have been reassigned while the investigation is pending, according to the Secret Service. No one has been charged, and no police reports were filed about the incident, which took place at the southeast entrance to the White House complex at 15th Street and E Street in downtown Washington.
While Clancy has often dismissed suggestions that a culture within the Secret Service has led to so many alcohol-related controversies in recent years, he acknowledged earlier this week that “there is an element” within Secret Service ranks that copes with the stresses of the job by drinking alcohol.
Lawmakers told ABC News the two agents had been at a retirement party before driving to the White House to retrieve another vehicle.
“When they got to the entrance of the White House, they apparently flashed their badges or whatever, and it was obvious that ... to the guards that were there, that they may have been a bit impaired," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told ABC News.
The vehicle then drove through an active crime scene set up after a woman left behind what was considered a suspicious package, according to accounts by Cummings and Clancy. The video Clancy has reviewed was saved because of the probe into the suspicious package, not because it related to the subsequent and separate allegations of employee misconduct, Clancy said.
Clancy emphasized today it’s a violation of agency policy for any Secret Service employee to drive through an active crime scene, and information about the incident should have been sent up the chain of command.
Clancy also insisted it’s still unclear whether the agents were intoxicated, saying it’s a question that will be answered by the Department of Homeland Security Committee’s Inspector General, which is now investigating the matter.
"They are still allegations,” Clancy said of reports the agents were impaired by alcohol.
Nevertheless, when uniformed officers confronted the agents, a supervisor ordered them to let the agents go without charge, government sources said. The supervisor is still on the job, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told ABC News. Unlike the agents in the car, the supervisor has not been reassigned. pending the investigation.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Pierre Thomas three weeks ago, Clancy vowed to chart a new course for the Secret Service.
“We have not received an unfair rap,” he conceded. “I think when you fail, and we have failed, we own it. Now, it’s up to us to correct it.”
In September, a man with a small knife in his pocket jumped the White House’s perimeter fence and made it deep inside the presidential building. That came more than two years after the Secret Service was shaken by the 2012 prostitution scandal out of Cartagena, Colombia.
At the time those scandals and others unfolded, Clancy was the head of security for Comcast, having left the government in 2011 after 27 years with the Secret Service. Clancy was “shocked” by what happened, he said.
Then, last month, a small drone flew over the fence and crashed on the White House grounds - prompting a predawn security scare. President Obama was in India at the time, and although the incident turned out to be a recreational flight gone awry, Clancy said he's “certainly concerned” about the threat a drone like that could pose.