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White House Security Breach Endangers the President

By    |   Monday, 30 November 2009 08:01 AM

After the Secret Service let uninvited guests into the White House State Dinner without any checking, a White House spokesman said President Obama has “full confidence” in the Secret Service.

Obama thus joins two former presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, in recklessly disregarding obvious threats to their own security.

As recounted in my book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,” Lincoln refused to have any security until just before his assassination. He then agreed to be guarded by one Washington patrolman, who wandered off for a drink moments before John Wilkes Booth shot the president.

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Kennedy refused to let agents ride on the rear running board of his limousine in Dallas.

“If agents had been allowed on the rear running boards, they would have pushed the president down and jumped on him to protect him before the fatal shot,” Charles Taylor, who was an agent on the Kennedy detail, tells me.

Yet these examples of poor security are nothing compared with the Secret Service’s current pattern of cutting corners on a wholesale basis, leading inexorably to the sort of inexcusable security breach we saw at the White House last week.

After the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, the Secret Service began to use metal-detecting magnetometers to screen those with access to the president. But in recent years, when pressured by staffs of presidential candidates like Obama or by the White House, agents have shut down magnetometers at major events when stragglers are still arriving and a speech is about to begin.

In some cases, under pressure from Bush White House aides, the Secret Service passed guests through magnetometers but turned the machines off so no alarm would sound if a weapon was detected.

As if shutting down magnetometers as an event is about to start is not shocking enough, when Vice President Biden threw the opening pitch at the Baltimore Orioles game last April, the Secret Service skipped all magnetometer screening.

“A gunman or gunmen from anywhere in the stands could have gotten off multiple rounds before we could have gotten in the line of fire,” says a current agent who is outraged that the Secret Service would be so reckless.

Ironically, when I interviewed Nicholas Trotta, who heads the Secret Service’s Office of Protective Operations, for my book — the first book about the Secret Service the agency has cooperated on — he cited the use of magnetometers as a key to protecting presidents.

“Now,” he said, “everyone goes through the magnetometer.”

But when I mentioned that the Secret Service shuts down magnetometers under pressure, Trotta contradicted himself and changed his tune.

“When we have a crowd of 70,000 people, we may or may not need to put all those people through magnetometers,” Trotta said. “Because some of those people in certain areas might not have a line-of-sight threat that can harm the protectee.”

What if an assassination occurred because someone was not screened? Trotta looked uncomfortable. Still, he plowed on ahead, saying it may be safe to forgo screening of crowds sitting farther away from the president.

Apparently, Trotta never heard of a gunman leaving his seat to zip off a shot or throw a grenade at the president. In fact, a decision to stop magnetometer screening almost led to the assassination of President Bush on May 10, 2005, when a man threw a grenade at him as he spoke at a rally in a public square in Tbilisi, Georgia. Because local security services shut down magnetometer screening, the man was able to carry a grenade into the event where Bush was to speak.

Failing to screen everyone who attends an event where the president or vice president is speaking is akin to letting passengers board an airplane without passing them through metal detectors. When told of Trotta’s rationale for stopping magnetometer screening, Secret Service agents cannot believe he said what he did indeed say.

“I was in absolute shock regarding his comment about the mags closing down and potential attackers being too far away to cause any problems,” says an agent on one of the two major protective details. Imagine, the agent says, if three or four suicide assassins came in, with guns blazing. “I cannot believe the head of our protective operations actually said that,” he says. “Yeah, let’s drop those magnetometers. Thank God you have it on record, because he would be one of the first people to be called to testify before a congressional committee if such an incident happened.”

Agents trace the corner-cutting to the Secret Service’s absorption into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Being submerged in what many view as a dysfunctional agency and having to compete for funds with 21 other national security agencies has led to a lowering of standards.

Agents who served before the Secret Service began cutting corners say they have never heard of stopping magnetometer screening. When told of the practice, they assert that the Secret Service would never do such a thing.

“You face pressure from political staffs all the time, but you don’t stop magnetometer screening,” says Norm Jarvis, who taught new agents, was on Bill Clinton’s protective detail, and left the Secret Service in 2005 as a special agent in charge. “Sometimes things happen and the flow rate is a little slow. But nobody in the Secret Service would allow the staff to impair security and jeopardize the life of the president by stopping magnetometer screening.”

“Requests were made by staff to expedite or stop magnetometer screening,” says Danny Spriggs, who headed protection and retired as deputy director of the Secret Service in 2004. “I would never have acquiesced to that.”

Shutting down magnetometers is just one example of how the Secret Service has been cutting corners. In some cases, its weapons are outmoded and leave agents open to being outgunned by well-armed assassins. Contrary to announced policy, agents on major protective details are not allotted time for physical training or firearms requalification. Instead, agents are asked to cover up the lack of training by filling out their own physical training test forms for themselves. Counterassault teams, which are trained as units of five to six members, have been slashed to two agents, rendering them virtually impotent in the face of an attack.

Overworked, underappreciated, and infuriated by senseless transfer policies, agents are leaving in droves, forcing the agency to hire inexperienced, less qualified agents. The attrition rate within the Uniformed Division is as high as 12 percent a year.

While Secret Service agents are often heroic, the agency uses subterfuge to make them seem more so. When members of Congress and other VIPs visit the Secret Service training facility in Laurel, Md., the agency presents scenarios where agents respond to a threat. While the demonstration is billed as spontaneous, in fact it is routinely secretly rehearsed.

When one considers how important preventing an assassination is to our democracy, the amount spent on the Secret Service — $1.4 billion a year, nearly two-thirds of it for protection — seems like a misprint.

Beyond a lack of adequate funding and personnel, the Secret Service’s practice of cutting corners stems from a management culture that is in denial about the threats, boasts it makes do with less, covers up its shortcomings, and is afraid of offending politicians’ staffs or the White House.

As one example, when Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary insisted that the Secret Service take her friends to restaurants and the detail refused, the Secret Service acceded to her request to have her detail leader removed.

Given the spinelessness of Secret Service management, one can easily imagine that the Secret Service Uniformed Division officer who let Michaele and Tareq Salahi of Virginia into the state dinner feared repercussions if he turned away the couple. Understaffed, overwhelmed, and aware of the Secret Service’s practice of cutting corners, he failed to call the White House social secretary’s office to determine if they should have been on the list.

Not only was the couple not on the guest list, the Secret Service did no background check on them. They could have been serial murderers, terrorists, or agents of Iran or North Korea. While they went through magnetometers, they could have taken out the president with chemical or biological weapons or stabbed him with a knife they could have picked up off a table.

Agents who are concerned that the Secret Service is on the brink of a disaster say that only a director appointed from the outside can make the wholesale changes that are needed in the agency’s management and culture. Without those changes, many agents say, an assassination of Obama is a real possibility.

Yet despite the evidence of corner cutting outlined in “In the President’s Secret Service,” the fact that threats against him have been up as much as 400 percent, and the disgraceful security lapse at the White House last week, Obama has signaled that he sees no systemic problem with the agency. That suggests that he is just as foolhardy as were two of our assassinated presidents.

Even if Obama has little regard for his own safety, he owes it to the American people to revamp the agency’s management to ensure his own safety and the safety of the Secret Service’s elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.

Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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After the Secret Service let uninvited guests into the White House State Dinner without any checking, a White House spokesman said President Obama has “full confidence” in the Secret Service. Obama thus joins two former presidents, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, in...
Monday, 30 November 2009 08:01 AM
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