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Security Around Obama Alarms Some VIP Donors

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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

Downtown Washington resembled a militarized zone last week for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but some major contributors who had direct contact with Obama said they were surprised to find what they viewed as porous security surrounding the president-elect and vice president-elect.

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Three contributors who raised $300,000 or more for the inauguration said they were never asked to show identification to retrieve dozens of tickets, including VIP passes that allowed them and their guests to meet privately with Obama. One of the three said ticket checks were so lax that no one noticed when, after a breakfast for contributors, a friend whose name hadn't been submitted for a background check tagged along into a VIP room to take pictures with Vice President-elect Joseph Biden.

And a half-dozen said that after a screening to sit in a ticketed area near Obama for his swearing-in, they mingled with public crowds but were never again checked for firearms or explosives.

"I was surprised," said online retail executive Alfred Lin, who attended most of the events for major donors in the days leading up to the swearing-in. "It was less strict than going through airport security."

To be sure, presidents mingle in public with people who have not been screened, and some donors said they were not troubled by the level of security in place last week. Ed Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, said the agency's security measures are not always visible. "We take a layered approach to security and don't rely on any one countermeasure to ensure that a site is safe," he said.

A half-dozen donors expressed concern that security close to Obama and Biden seemed lacking, especially in light of the measures in effect downtown that day.

A donor who bundled contributions for the inauguration, who recalled participating in events hosting former president Bill Clinton, said he was shocked at what he saw as the disparity between the strict advance work done to secure a site for Clinton and the way he felt donors breezed through security last week. "The lack of security was absurd," said the bundler, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about how he and others were able to circumvent security. "It was just broken somewhere; someone wasn't thinking it through."

Several donors said they were particularly troubled by an episode before dawn Tuesday: More than 100 corporate executives, Hollywood personalities and others had been told to gather for a security screening outside the Renaissance Hotel at 999 Ninth St. NW. Once cleared, they were told, they would board "secure" buses that would ferry them to seats close to the president's podium at the Capitol, and then to bleachers adjoining his viewing stand in front of the White House.

But after passing through a magnetometer outside the hotel, members of the group said they were directed to a public sidewalk and told to find their way across Ninth Street to buses waiting in a convention center parking lot. Along the way, they said they mingled with throngs of spectators streaming toward the Mall. The VIPs were not screened again or asked for identification, they said.

Suzi LeVine, a former Expedia executive, said volunteers lined her path to the buses. Even so, she said, "I was definitely thinking, 'Is there a way that people could be infiltrating this group?' "

Arjun Gupta, founder and managing partner of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm TeleSoft Partners and a co-chairman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, stressed that on the whole, he was impressed with inaugural security, but said the walk to the bus appeared to be a lapse.

"I didn't think about it at the time, but we went through security and then we were in an open space, freely accessible to the public," Gupta said. "The street was an open thoroughfare. Cars were going up and down. If you really knew what you were doing, that was truly a gap."

The Presidential Inaugural Committee was in charge of transportation for the donors but not security, and two of the donors said they recalled seeing Secret Service badges on men staffing the checkpoint outside the Renaissance.

Donovan, the Secret Service spokesman, said he could not confirm whether the agency ran the checkpoint. Donovan said he was aware of no concerns about security outside the hotel, and he encouraged anyone with such concerns to contact the Secret Service directly.

To anyone surfing the Internet, accounts of the lax security surrounding the "secure" buses were being broadcast in near-real time.

Chris Sacca, a tech investor who raised money for the inaugural committee, posted a message on the social messaging Web site Twitter at 6:45 a.m. after passing through the checkpoint. "We were thoroughly X-rayed, then walked across a public street in the open," Sacca wrote, adding an acronym for an expletive to convey disbelief.

Evan Williams, chief executive of Twitter, was also in line -- ahead of film producer George Lucas, according to his posts. He republished Sacca's account for his 39,615 online followers 10 minutes later, adding "True. And yikes."

Alfred Lin, who is chief operating officer and financial officer for Zappos.com, replied, "If I got this sooner, we'd have slept and snuck in."

Asked about the Twitter exchange, Lin said he was surprised by the walk to the bus but didn't see anyone not go through security. Sacca and Williams declined to comment on their posts, but Williams said he assumed that with the Secret Service, "there's a lot going on behind the scenes that you don't see."

Two donors expressed concern about security screenings that preceded a meeting they and about 100 others had with Obama in a tent behind the Lincoln Memorial before the Sunday concert.

One said he was waved through with a camera that had no batteries despite warnings that it would have to be operational. The two said they later walked unattended by the president's motorcade and watched other donors lean on Obama's limousine, posing for pictures.

By the next morning, when Biden spoke to donors at a Northwest hotel, one said it had become clear that ticket checks had become "a joke." He said he flashed a handful of coveted gray passes to gain access to the VIP room with Biden but brought in an extra guest.

Steve McKeever, founder of the music label Hidden Beach Recordings and another bundler, said he was never concerned about security because many in the groups were acquainted with one another, as well as with some Secret Service agents from past gatherings. "It wasn't like people won a lottery ticket to be there," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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