WASHINGTON -- Top Secret Service officials ordered members of a special unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter to abandon their posts over at least two months in 2011 in order to protect a personal friend of the agency's director, according to three people familiar with the operation.
The new assignment, known internally as Operation Moonlight, diverted agents to a rural area outside the southern Maryland town of La Plata, nearly an hour's drive from Washington. Agents were told that then-Director Mark Sullivan was concerned that his assistant was being harassed by her neighbor, the three people said.
Two agents were sent twice a day, in the morning and the evening, to monitor the home of the assistant, Lisa Chopey. The trips began on June 30, 2011, and extended through the summer before tapering off in August, according to people familiar with internal shift records.
The agents were members of a surveillance team code-named Prowler, which patrols the outskirts of the White House compound and responds to reported problems. The unit is also tasked with monitoring the southern side of the White House whenever crowds gather to watch the president and first family travel via motorcade or helicopter.
Agents inside the Washington field office were concerned that Operation Moonlight increased security risks to the compound and the president, two people familiar with the discussion said.
On the first day of the new operation, the two Prowler agents on duty were directed to leave their position on the Ellipse, the public park directly south of the executive mansion, minutes before President Barack Obama departed on his helicopter. The aircraft's movements on and off the South Lawn are times of heightened security concern.
The agents thought the reassignment was a potentially illegal use of government resources. They were concerned enough about their own liability that they kept records of their involvement and their superiors' instructions.
Some reported the operation to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service's parent agency.
People familiar with the operation said a Senate committee's recent finding that the former DHS inspector general softened and delayed investigations -- particularly those critical of administration officials -- renewed frustration that the issue may have not been properly investigated.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House was not aware of the allegations involving the president's protection and referred questions to the U.S. Secret Service.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan confirmed that Prowler agents were pulled off their White House duty to check on the safety of the director's assistant, Lisa Chopey, in 2011.
But Mr. Donovan disputed accounts that Operation Moonlight lasted for months, saying agency records indicate that the assignment took place for only a few days over the Fourth of July weekend.
Mr. Donovan declined to release the records.