WASHINGTON (AFP) - The director of the US Secret Service faced a grilling on Tuesday from US lawmakers upset by its failure to rein in embarrassing security lapses, and by his acknowledgement that agents use alcohol to reduce stress.
Joseph Clancy, the tarnished protection agency's new boss, was in the hot seat over an incident early this month in which two senior agents drove into White House barricades after a night of boozing but were not detained or given breathalyser tests.
Lawmakers expressed displeasure over Clancy's acknowledgement to the House Appropriations Committee panel that he did not learn of the March 4 incident until five days later.
Stressing this was his "first test" since being confirmed as director last month, Clancy admitted he had yet to speak with the White House agent in charge at the time, citing the need for an investigation without interference from his office.
"I should have been informed" immediately, he said.
"We're following up on that, and there will be accountability."
The incident marked the latest of several embarrassments for the agency, including a major security breach last September when an intruder barged into the White House wielding a knife.
Lawmakers also appeared flabbergasted at Clancy's suggestion that changing Secret Service "culture" would take time, as he seeks to earn agents' trust as their new director.
"Dude, you don't have to earn their trust. You're their boss!" House Republican Chris Stewart charged.
"They're supposed to earn your trust and they haven't earned your trust. And the way you earn their trust is you hold them accountable."
A humbled Clancy repeatedly said "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am" when confronted with withering congressional critiques, which only grew when he said agents were coping with job demands by drinking.
"There's an element within our agency that does cope with stresses... by using alcohol," Clancy said, noting that the agency recently launched an initiative to address stress.
"We've got to find a way to help some of these people that are going toward alcohol as a coping mechanism," he said.
The revelations proved too much for some members of Congress, already deeply frustrated by Secret Service shortcomings including hard-partying oversees incidents like the one in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, when a dozen agents were caught soliciting prostitutes.
"You can't run an agency like this, for God's sakes," committee chairman Hal Rogers boomed, regarding the latest White House incident, which includes accusations that supervisors may be protecting agents involved.
"This is a breakdown, to put it mildly, of discipline within the ranks of your agency and that's a cancer that can consume you."
Democrat Nita Lowey expressed concern Clancy was unable to simply fire agents for drunkenness at the White House.
"I don't want a member of the Secret Service, frankly, who's capable of getting so inebriated that this kind of an action can be accepted," she told Clancy.
But Clancy said he needed to let due process play out.
"I don't have the ability to just fire people at will."