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The Secret Service tried to embarrass a top Republican congressman. It backfired badly.

 A member of the Secret Service checks rooftops before Pope Francis passes through Central Park on September 25, 2015, in New York.
A member of the Secret Service checks rooftops before Pope Francis passes through Central Park on September 25, 2015, in New York.
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Secret Service agents snooped on private records of a high-ranking congressman in an attempt to embarrass him, a blistering 29-page report issued by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has found.

At the time, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was investigating allegations that two Secret Service supervisors in Washington had breached a crime scene adjacent to the White House and may have been drinking beforehand.

The inspector general concluded that officials improperly accessed Chaffetz's personnel records and sought to embarrass the congressman by making it known within the agency — and, ultimately, outside it — that Chaffetz had once applied for a job with the Secret Service and had not been hired. To get to his records, agency workers had to blow through an electronic warning about the consequences of accessing personal information in the database without authorization.

Chaffetz warning

The warning a Secret Service official would have seen before logging in to the system that held Rep. Jason Chaffetz's personal information.

Office of the Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security

The first breach came in March, within 20 minutes of Chaffetz starting a hearing at which Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy testified. In all, the IG concluded, 45 Secret Service officials accessed Chaffetz's records between the start of the March 24 hearing and April 2, when his failed attempt to become an agent made it into the news media. Only four of them did so with proper authorization, the report found.

While the IG didn't find evidence of Secret Service agents being the original sources of information for reporters, he did show that one agent confirmed information and that there was internal discussion about possibly leaking the news.

In one email included in the report, an assistant director of the agency writes of Chaffetz, "Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out." That director told the IG that he did not go further than making the suggestion and did not direct anyone to leak information about Chaffetz. Still, the report described the behavior of agents and supervisors as reprehensible.

"It doesn’t take a lawyer explaining the nuances of the Privacy Act to know that the conduct that occurred here by dozens of agents in every part of the agency was simply wrong," IG John Roth wrote. "The agents should have known better."

That's putting it mildly. The problem isn't just an attempt to embarrass Chaffetz — and that certainly happened when the story of Chaffetz's application to the Secret Service was reported in the Daily Beast and the Washington Post. It's more about the potential for the administration to put a chilling effect on the oversight work of Congress. Chaffetz has said he felt intimidated when the story became public, and even if he didn't, the message to members of Congress is clear: The old days of federal law enforcement agencies digging up dirt on an administration's political enemies aren't entirely in the past.

Why was Chaffetz investigating the Secret Service in the first place?

Scandal and mismanagement have beleaguered the agency in recent years. Among the moments of infamy: a prostitution scandal involving agents in Colombia, a fence-jumping incident in which a guy with a knife made it into the White House, and the report of two officials breaching a possible crime scene at the White House after attending a going-away party for departing agency spokesperson Ed Donovan.

So Chaffetz had every right — and a duty, really — to conduct oversight hearings. He's a Republican, and the administration is run by a Democrat, President Barack Obama. Surely, there's a political edge to be gained there if one of the agencies closest to the president isn't operating well. But as congressional investigations go, it's hard to look at this one and conclude that it's motivated exclusively by political considerations.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, issued a joint statement with Chaffetz after reports that a crime scene was breached by high-ranking officials.

"The fact that this event involved senior-level agents is not only embarrassing but exhibits a clear lack of judgment in a potentially dangerous situation," the said at the time. "The committee as a whole remains committed to restoring the integrity of this elite agency and improving accountability at all staff levels."

The dirt on Chaffetz is meaningless

In 2002, Chaffetz, a former college placekicker, applied for a job with the Secret Service. His application wasn't acted upon. He never got an interview. End of story.

Except that it wasn't. For some reason — probably a combination of pique and immaturity — Secret Service agents thought that it would make Chaffetz look bad if it was known within the agency, and outside it, that he had failed to gain employment.

It seems obvious that some agency officials think Chaffetz's investigation is a personal vendetta being carried out to exact revenge for the really terrible fate he suffered when he didn't get a job with the Secret Service. That's lunacy. Instead, he got into politics. Then he got elected to Congress, where he has oversight over the entire agency. That is, Chaffetz is arguably a lot better off for having not made it into the Secret Service.

Now, though, he has a really good reason to settle the score, and it will be harder to have sympathy for agency officials who feel they're being unfairly targeted.