It’s a tense time at the Secret Service.
For months, the agency charged with protecting the president has been rocked by revelations of alleged misconduct. These incidents have fuelled a congressional investigation and led to the resignation of former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson last October.
With scrutiny mounting, the normally tight-lipped agency is now consumed by an intense, high-level guessing game over who was motivated to leak information to the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, who first reported many of these allegations.
A source within the Secret Service told Business Insider there is furious and widespread discussion within the agency about who might be talking to Leonnig.
“There’s a lot of speculation,” said the insider, calling the leaks “problematic.”
Leonnig’s latest bombshell was published on March 11. It detailed an incident that took place seven days earlier when a pair of Secret Service agents drove a car into a barricade that was set up next to a suspicious package that had been placed in front of the White House. The agents, including a top member of the president’s security detail, had reportedly just come from a party and the area had been cleared for the investigation of the package.
In a conversation last week, an official source said the story generated intense speculation within the Secret Service.
“You walk out of my office now, you see Secret Service agents, they’re discussing this,” the source claimed.
One government source shared their theory about the origin of Leonnig’s story with Business Insider. Partially because some details of the article were later called into question, they suggested it came from a leaker (or leakers) with an axe to grind in the Secret Service’s uniformed division.
“Someone or some group of people who really have a bone to pick with the agency overall,” the government source said.
The Post’s initial headline described the situation as a “car accident.” In the story, there were also allegations from witnesses the agents improperly had their flashing lights on. The following day, Leonnig and another reporter published another story that claimed the agents “were suspected of driving under the influence” and that they disrupted the investigation because they “may have driven over the suspicious package.”
On March 17, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone revealed the existence of a surveillance video that called several aspects of the accounts of the incident published by the Post into question. Calderone’s story was attributed to an unnamed “source” who had seen the video and claimed that, rather than an “accident” it showed the agents “driving very slowly after arriving at the scene, perhaps just 1 to 2 mph.”
“The source said the agents’ car nudged a traffic barrel and that the action appeared to be intentional rather than reckless — in an effort to move the object out of the way,” Calderone wrote.
The official source who spoke to Business Insider last week also saw the video. They echoed the description given to Calderone. The source asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to discuss the footage, which had not yet been released. However, the official source claimed the agent’s actions seemed “very purposeful, very intentional” and criticised “a picture that was painted about the scene that evening” by the Post.
“That picture was somewhat chaotic, disorganized, a state of disarray there,” the official said.
At the same time the source who spoke to Business Insider questioned details of the Post’s story and its overall tone, they acknowledged that the incident clearly involved breaches of Secret Service protocol. The source said the fact the package was being investigated meant agents were supposed to keep clear of the area — something they claimed would have been broadcast to Secret Service personnel on their radios.
Still, the government source said the surveillance footage indicated the possibility the agents saw the empty area, which was normally staffed and approached because they were “assessing the situation.” They theorised the agents “may have suspected that something was going on and were inserting themselves as Secret Service agents … to assist and to deal with it.”
“I don’t want to suggest that these guys didn’t screw up, but there was no ramming into the barrier. There was no chaos,” they explained. “They didn’t run the vehicle over a potential bomb. … They didn’t run the vehicle over a package.”
A spokesman for the Secret Service declined to comment on this story due to the ongoing investigation into the incident.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-California), the chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, aired the surveillance video at a hearing held as part of his committee’s ongoing investigation into the Secret Service. Along with showing the footage, Chaffetzgrilled Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy about the agency’s “botched response” to the incident.
When it was unveiled at the hearing, the video contrasted with the accounts published in the Post. It appeared to show the agents’ car without its lights flashing, driving very slowly, and passing next to the package rather than over it.
Three previous stories Leonnig wrote about the Secret Service have also raised questions.
One of these stories, which was published last September, reported that an armed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention security contractor who was allowed onto an elevator with President Barack Obama was a “convicted felon.” After the initial story, the Post published a correction and acknowledged the security contract “had prior arrests” but was “not a convicted felon.” Either way, it was reportedly a violation of Secret Service protocols for the contractor to have been allowed near the president while carrying a weapon.
Along with the stories that have generated controversy, Leonnig has reported many stories about problems at the Secret Service that have gone unquestioned. These include a story that pointed out the agency’s mishandling of an incident last September where an intruder jumped the White House fence and made it inside the building and an article that revealed agents “bungled” their response when a gunman shot at the president’s residence in 2011. Those revelations contributed to the resignation of former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson last October.
On Sunday, Leonnig appeared on Brian Stelter’s CNN show “Reliable Sources” to discuss her work. Stelter brought up Leonnig’s coverage of the Secret Service agents hitting the barricade and the armed CDC contractor and asked about the idea her anonymous sources could be pushing an agenda.
“Do you think there’s some legitimacy to the idea that some of your sources have tried to lead you astray and try to paint a picture of a very troubled Secret Service?” he asked.
In her response, Leonnig implied some of the questions about her work and the motivations of her sources came from White House “pushback.”
“You said something interesting which is about the pushback. I just want to say, many agents and officials inside the Secret Service who are sources of mine say they feel as though the Washington Post’s reporting is flagging kind of security vulnerabilities that ultimately are going to make the president safer,” Leonnig said. “And one thing that’s odd is why is there all this pushback against reporting that would make the president safer? I would assume the administration wants that, too.”
When Business Insider reached out to Leonnig, we received an email from Washington Post National Editor Cameron Barr defending her work.
“We are proud of Carol Leonnig’s reporting, which has repeatedly exposed problems and missteps at an agency charged with protecting the life of the president,” Barr wrote.
Barr declined to respond to theories Leonnig’s sources had an agenda or whether they came from within the uniform division.
“When we agree to shield the identity of our sources, we refrain from commenting on speculation about their motivation,” he wrote.
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