By Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009
The bizarre breach at the White House state dinner last week lends new urgency to a review of Secret Service procedures that was begun after President Obama's inauguration, and threatens to revive questions about how much security is enough for the country's elected leader.
A senior Secret Service official said a "top-to-bottom" review of the agency's protective department was ordered shortly after Obama began his term amid the highest threat level for any recent president. The results are due soon, said spokesman James Mackin.
But Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia couple who waltzed, uninvited, into the White House and shook hands with Obama on Tuesday night provided new evidence that in a democracy, it is far from impossible to breach the bubble of security around the chief executive.
The breakdown stunned the top aides to the first African American president and forced a rare apology from the director of the Secret Service. And it led to predictions that security around the first family will rapidly become more intense.
"A tight system will be tightened even more," said William H. Pickle Jr., a former Secret Service agent who led Al Gore's vice-presidential detail and headed Senate security from 2003 to 2007. "I would encourage the White House social office to buy umbrellas before the next event, because you can be sure the Secret Service will be doing their job, and it may be that visitors will be out there for a very long time."
Security experts called the breach an indefensible breakdown that will almost certainly lead to changes within the Secret Service, which regularly reviews procedures after incidents such as a September 1994 crash of a stolen plane on the White House grounds. At the same time, they cautioned against exaggerating any actual threat posed to Obama.
A source who had spoken to senior Secret Service officials said the Salahis were allowed inside in violation of agency policies by an officer outside the front gate who apparently was persuaded by the couple's manner and insistence as well as the pressure of keeping lines moving on a rainy evening.
"Rather than stand there and get wet, he went ahead and let them go," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending his contacts.
Once inside, the couple were identified by a Washington Post reporter, who asked two White House staffers early in the evening about their absence from the guest list and raised the issue with them in an 11 p.m. e-mail. A report on what occurred that night -- including their movements inside the White House -- is expected in a matter of days.
Letting uninvited guests onto the executive complex is a breach of security procedures that never should have happened, experts said. But they said it is a "once in a million" breakdown that is unlikely to inspire potential assassins to infiltrate White House social events, because the odds against success are so great.
Agency supporters noted that the public learns only of its failures, not its successes, and that it has generally avoided major scandals that have embarrassed the CIA and FBI.
"Every day it goes right. Every night we go to bed, there are folks who come on duty keeping that place safe," Mackin said. "Agencies from around the world that have the same responsibilities as us come to us for counsel."
In fact, officials said the agency guarded those under its protection at 100 percent of 7,535 U.S. and overseas stops last year, screened twice as many people (4.2 million) in a precedent-shattering 2008 presidential campaign as it did in 2004, and properly looked after 116 foreign heads of state and 58 spouses.
But security is always a balancing act between sealing off every possible vulnerability and the actual risk that a gap will be exploited. Every president faces risks, whether by jumping out of a motorcade to shake hands at a rope line, as Bill Clinton liked to do, or by vacationing at a beach within telephoto-lens range of paparazzi, as Obama did on a post-election break in Hawaii.
Critics and defenders of the president's guards agree that the only assurance of complete security is to seal the president from the public. His advisers don't want that, however, so compromises are made -- as are mistakes.
Eight years ago, a California minister with no security clearances made his way through stiff inauguration security to shake President George W. Bush's hand and offer him a medallion. Dubbed "Handshake Man," the Rev. Richard Weaver had pulled the same stunt with five other presidents, but was caught in 2005 and banned from Washington for five years.
Weaver said he doesn't think much of the Salahis' exploits. "These people I think did it for ego, and that made me sick," he said, adding that his incursions were divinely motivated.
In December 2008, agents were caught off guard when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush during a news conference in Iraq.
A month later, some of Obama's top donors complained of lax security procedures at his inauguration, describing the ease with which people walked past checkpoints to mingle with the new president and vice president.
H. Stuart Knight, who headed the Secret Service from 1973 to 1981 -- an era that spanned the agency's efforts to recover from its role in Watergate abuses, two unsuccessful attempts on Gerald Ford and an attempt that wounded Ronald Reagan -- called protecting the president "a living nightmare in a democracy."
After 9/11, the White House canceled public tours indefinitely, and briefly ended public access to the lighting of the national Christmas tree, leading to criticism of a "bunker government."
After the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, a major interagency government security review closed public access to Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, leading to protests by D.C. city and business leaders.
Presidents and first ladies have been known to try to give the slip to their Secret Service shadows, even as they have sought to bring in guests that might have criminal records or conduct campaigns, official events or even personal lives in ways that expose them to the public in less mediated forms than their guards would prefer.
In February, after inauguration snafus, Obama was quick to defend the agency, saying in a television interview he had complete confidence in the Service's ability to keep him safe.
"I basically do what they tell me to do," Obama quipped. But he also added that living in a security "bubble" wasn't always easy. "It's the hardest adjustment of being president."
Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.