The latest scandal at the US Secret Service goes beyond alcohol binges and unpaid prostitutes, and directly into the realm of the abuse of power. When the personal assistant of then-Director Mark Sullivan got into a dispute with a neighbor, one with restraining orders and considerably tense feelings, Sullivan ordered agents assigned to a presidential detail to shift their attention to surveillance of the neighbor. The neighbor, a 22-year employee of the FBI, tells the Washington Post that she knew she was being watched, but couldn’t believe it when told who was watching her and her family in the rural area of La Plata, Maryland:
Top Secret Service officials ordered members of a special unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter to abandon their posts over at least two months in 2011 in order to protect a personal friend of the agency’s director, according to three people familiar with the operation.
The new assignment, known internally as Operation Moonlight, diverted agents to a rural area outside the southern Maryland town of La Plata, nearly an hour’s drive from Washington. Agents were told that then-Director Mark Sullivan was concerned that his assistant was being harassed by her neighbor, the three people said.
Two agents were sent twice a day, in the morning and the evening, to monitor the home of the assistant, Lisa Chopey. The trips began June 30, 2011, and extended through the summer before tapering off in August, according to people familiar with internal shift records.
The agents were members of a surveillance team code-named Prowler, which patrols the outskirts of the White House compound and responds to reported problems. The unit is also tasked with monitoring the southern side of the White House whenever crowds gather to watch the president and first family travel via motorcade or helicopter.
The basic issue here is that this was none of the Secret Service’s business. This was a matter for the local police and court to adjudicate; the employment of the assistant did not give Sullivan any writ or authority over the situation. Regardless of jurisdiction, Sullivan took it upon himself to misdirect agency assets for his own personal purposes, and in the process illegally surveil a citizen who had done nothing to warrant the agency’s attention. On top of that, the assets in question were assigned to the White House, which means that the ability to protect the President, his family, and his staff was impacted in order to intimidate Sullivan’s secretary’s neighborhood foes. And on top of that, the agency knew full well that it was illegal — because, as the Post’s Carol Leonnig reports, they kept a secret file of Operation Moonlight’s activities rather than make it part of their normal filings.
The Secret Service confirmed the allocation of resources, but claimed that it only took place for “a few days” over the 4th of July. Their spokesperson says that the Prowler unit doesn’t work in “protective services,” which may be true in the most literal sense of not having a specific assignment to a person – but they protect the southern area of the White House grounds where Marine One takes off and lands, and where motorcades begin and end. On the first day of the operation, Leonnig reports from her sources within the agency, the first pair of agents got pulled away from that duty just before President Obama left on the helicopter for an event.
Even worse, the Inspector General of Homeland Security apparently knew of this abuse of power and did nothing about it:
Some reported the operation to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service’s parent agency. People familiar with the operation said a Senate committee’s recent finding that the former DHS inspector general softened and delayed investigations — particularly those critical of administration officials — renewed frustration that the issue may have not been properly investigated.
We maintain jurisdictional lines on federal agencies for a reason. When federal agencies decide for themselves to intervene for personal reasons and get away with it, we cease being citizens under the governance of law and become subjects under the rule of whim. The IRS scandal is yet another example of the same dynamic, and the lack of discipline exposed within the Secret Service over the last couple of years — even outside of Sullivan’s time as Director — is a symptom of it. Congress needs to start digging deep into the activities of all federal agencies, and better yet, start narrowing their power and jurisdiction considerably.