By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security has requested an independent audit of security surrounding Barack Obama's inauguration after several top donors said they were not screened for firearms or explosives between the time they left a public street and entered areas near the president.
Six donors told The Washington Post last month that after a security screening early Jan. 20, they mingled with the general public before being allowed to board "secure" buses that took them to seats near Obama at the Capitol and later to bleachers next to him at the White House.
In a letter Monday to Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the allegations raised "significant concerns" about inaugural security led by the Secret Service. He asked Skinner to "investigate and identify" any security deficiencies.
"It would appear that any enterprising terrorist or other criminal could have easily infiltrated even the most secure areas on Inauguration Day with potentially disastrous results," Thompson wrote.
Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency has been working with D.C. Police, the U.S. Park Police and other law enforcement agencies since the inauguration to complete a review that is standard for the agency following major events.
"Although we have not directly received the information referenced in the Washington Post article, we will look at the areas reported," Donovan said in an e-mail.
He also said the agency will cooperate with any inquiry conducted by the inspector general's office. "Although protection agencies from around the world come to us for guidance, we have never relinquished our commitment to learn and improve upon our security protocols," Donovan wrote.
The audit would be the Homeland Security inspector general's first probe of Secret Service operations involving protection of a president, aside from technical audits of computer systems in 2005.
In an interview, Thompson said he wants someone with broad authority to review all aspects of local, state and federal homeland security efforts to determine whether breakdowns occurred and, if so, whether they were the responsibility of the Secret Service or another agency.
"This is not to point blame," Thompson said, noting that without a single arrest on Inauguration Day, security apparently was effective.
Thompson said he was also concerned that VIP guests were quick to post online accounts of what they viewed as lax security.
Donors faulted the security for private meetings with Obama and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden in the days before the inauguration. One said ticket inspections were so lax that no one noticed when, at a breakfast the morning before the inauguration, he brought in a guest whose name had not been submitted for a background check to take pictures with Biden.
Donovan said the Secret Service neither issues nor checks tickets. It is the responsibility of the event host to handle such matters, he said.
Donors questioned the ticket checks at events hosted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Josh Earnest, former communications director for the committee, said the ticket checks were for crowd control, not security.
Asked about The Post report during a TV interview Monday, Obama expressed confidence in the Secret Service. "These guys and gals are unbelievably professional," he said. "They know what they're doing. And I basically do what they tell me to do."