Most of the controversy over government surveillance programs in the last few years has focused on fears of what the NSA or FBI might do with the personal data they’ve collected on Americans guilty of no crime. But what if you’ve applied for a federal job? Surely that information would not be misused or improperly accessed, particularly since it is protected by the Privacy Act?
That’s probably what now-Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) thought when he applied for a job with the Secret Service in 2003. But as the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz earned the hatred of many in the Secret Service for his investigations into the agency’s many recent blunders and scandals. Thanks to a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General investigation into the leak of Chaffetz’ 2003 Secret Service application, we now have an idea of how extensive the leak of his personal information was throughout the agency. As the IG noted:We were unable to determine with certainty how many of those individuals in turn disclosed this information to others who did not have a need to know, who may have then told others. However, the disclosure was widespread, and recipients of the information likely numbered in the hundreds. Those agents we interviewed acknowledged freely sharing it with others in the Secret Service, often contemporaneously with accessing the information. 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.
With one exception, the IG also found that senior civil servants in the Secret Service did nothing to stop the propogation of Chaffetz’ personal data:We identified 18 supervisors at the GS-15 or Senior Executive Service level who appeared to have known or should have known, prior to the publication of the fact, that Chairman Chaffetz’ MCI record was being accessed. Yet, with a single exception, we found no evidence that any of these senior Secret Service managers attempted to inform the Director or higher levels of the supervisory chain, or to stop or remediate the activity. Furthermore, we found no evidence that a manager at any level issued written guidance for employees to discontinue accessing MCI for anything but official use.
Chaffetz’ file was accessed at 29 different Secret Service facilities. None of the federal employees who did so had a legitimate reason to look at Chaffetz’ file. Assistant Director for Training Ed Lowry emailed a colleague stating “Some information he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair.” While the IG investigators could not link Lowry to the leak of the Chaffetz file to the media, someone within the Secret Service clearly did so.
The leak of Chairman Chaffetz’ employment application was a clear attempt to intimidate or punish him for doing his job: overseeing the conduct of a federal agency under his committee’s jurisdiction. This incident comes just a year after revelations about the hacking by CIA employees of computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff investigating the CIA’s torture program. To date, there have been no prosecutions in either case or any attempts by Congress to use the impeachment mechanism to remove implicated federal officials. The lack of accountability in these episodes only invites further assaults on Congress’ status as an independent, co-equal branch of government.