The head of the Secret Service, a retired detail leader who was given the assignment of shoring up the agency in a period of crisis, is leaving his post, a little more than two years after arriving in one of Washington’s toughest jobs.
Joseph Clancy, whom then-President Obama summoned back from the private sector in late 2014 amid a string of security breaches and employee misconduct in the agency, said it’s now time to retire for good. He alerted the White House last week of his plans to step down March 20, giving President Trump the chance to select his own security chief.
Clancy, the former head of Obama’s protective detail, steered the Secret Service as it strained to shoulder a heavy workload with the lowest number of employees in a decade. At one point, the Service had 500 fewer people on staff than it was authorized to hire.
On Clancy’s watch, the Service successfully tackled an intense and rancorous 2016 presidential election – that featured pushing and taunting by opposing sides – without any major incidents.
Clancy said his proudest moments came in the summer and fall of 2015 when he watched his agents and officers simultaneously shield the pope on a historic four-city visit to America and 170 foreign dignitaries at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. To accomplish this task, the understaffed Service leaned heavily on its sister agencies in the Department of Homeland Security.
“We had been going through a tough time but I could see in their eyes and hear in their voices they were determined to succeed,” Clancy told the Post. “They wanted to prove to everyone they could complete this most difficult mission and they did. I knew they were exhausted but they were determined and knowing what they had been through over recent years it was inspirational to me.”
But Clancy also leaves behind a workforce that continues to complain of burnout, low morale and a paucity of experienced managers with a vision for the agency.
Former director Ralph Basham said Clancy will be remembered as a reassuring presence and a steady leader “who has done right by the Service.”
“Due to his calm and professional manner and approach to problem solving, he’s just done a tremendous job for the dept. It was an incredibly difficult couple of years,” Basham said. “Not to say they don’t have issues remaining, but I think he’s put the organization on a good path to getting better. ”
A leading contender to replace Clancy is George Mulligan, the current chief operating officer, former Pentagon official and White House military office director who was brought on to bring the Service more focus on business management. Other names being discussed include former Clinton detail leader Larry Cockell; Mickey Nelson, a former assistant director; and newly promoted Deputy Director William Callahan.
Clancy first joined the Service in 1984, rising to become the leader of Obama’s detail in 2009 and retiring in 2011. He returned to his native Philadelphia, taking a job as a security director for Comcast.
Clancy accepted the responsibility of running the Secret Service in October 2014 in a telephone call with the president, the same day Obama pressed for and received the resignation of Director Julia Pierson.
On Pierson’s watch, a string of embarrassing incidents unfolded in succession. Officers and agents were caught in drunken misbehavior while preparing for presidential visits in the Florida Keys and the Netherlands, and even across the square from the White House at a hotel bar. The final straw came Sept. 19, 2014, when a limping, mentally-ill veteran jumped the White House fence, bypassed more than a dozen Secret Service guards and hurtled deep inside the White House mansion.
Clancy was to serve as an acting director. But the president went against the advice of an expert panel that studied the Service’s dysfunction and recommended an outsider. He named Clancy the permanent director.
He – and especially Michelle Obama – wanted the comfort of the familiar “Father Joe.” The Obama administration hoped Clancy, the president’s former detail leader, would instill some sense of calm in a divided and demoralized agency.
In that, he largely succeeded.
Members of Congress wanted new blood – a fresh face from outside the Service who could break down its insular culture. Still, with the president’s choice, they hoped that Clancy could shore up the Service by boosting morale and rapidly hiring enough agents and officers to keep up with a flood of departures and early retirements.
On that score, he struggled.
The Service morale has hit historic lows. In the 2016 employee survey, the Service ranked dead last among all agencies for employee satisfaction, 305 out of 305.
Clancy sought to speed up hiring, but it remained a largely cumbersome, slow process. In 2015, the agency saw 416 people retire or resign, but only 78 new employees come aboard, according to a federal workforce report.
Clancy said he faced a steep learning curve, having never worked in headquarters before. He described needing to gain the trust of the workforce, and also study up.
“I had to acknowledge our past but try to convince our workforce that our body of work over 150 years was too great to simply ignore,” he said. ” I had to get up to speed quickly on the work of each of the directorates. What were their goals and their needs. How could I help them. I had a lot to learn.”
He has now given a collective 29 years to the Service.
The 61-year-old grandfather has always planned to be an interim director, and is looking forward to moving out of his bachelor’s condo in Washington. He’ll move back full-time with his wife in their home in the Philadelphia suburbs, where they both grew up, met and started a family.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Carol D. Leonnig