Secret Service documents long list of security breaches

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

Long before a pair of gate-crashers penetrated a White House state dinner, the Secret Service had detailed for its internal use a lengthy list of security breaches dating to the Carter administration -- including significant failures in the agency's protection of the president.

A summary of a secret 2003 report obtained by The Washington Post, along with descriptions of more recent incidents by federal homeland security officials, places Tareq and Michaele Salahi squarely in a rogues' gallery of autograph hounds, publicity seekers, unstable personalities and others identified by the Secret Service as defeating its checkpoints at least 91 times since 1980.

The document, the most complete accounting of recent Secret Service security breakdowns, includes officers mistakenly admitting to the White House grounds a family in a minivan, a man believed to be a delivery driver, and a woman previously known to agents after she had falsely claimed a "special relationship" with Bill Clinton.

The only assailant to injure a president in the past three decades was John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot and wounded Ronald Reagan in 1981 from outside the security perimeter established by the Secret Service.

Nevertheless, the list of security breaches exposes significant gaps that could be exploited by would-be assassins, the document states, and erode "one of the best tools for deterring future attempts" -- the aura of invulnerability around the White House.

A Secret Service official confirmed the authenticity of the unclassified document, which was a 39-slide presentation, and said it had been used to train agents and officers in an effort to improve agency operations. "This document reflects a proactive attempt to evaluate our security and obviously raises the awareness of uniformed division officers and agents about their jobs," spokesman Edwin Donovan said. "We have to be concerned about the threats to our protectees at all times, whether at the White House or away from the White House."

Donovan noted that in 2008 alone, the agency successfully protected 34 top U.S. leaders and 222 U.N. General Assembly dignitaries, as well as some of the officials' spouses and relatives, at thousands of locations in the United States and abroad.

The agency is entering what it calls a sustained period of elevated "international, domestic and individual" threats, protecting Barack Obama, the country's first African American president, and its two most recent wartime leaders, former president George W. Bush and former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

After the appearance at last month's state dinner by the Salahis, the Secret Service has launched a criminal investigation into the couple and a sweeping internal review of security procedures. Offering a rare public apology for the incident, the agency's director, Mark Sullivan, characterized it as a "pure and simple . . . case of human error" in which three uniformed officers let the well-dressed Salahis pass through gates on a rainy night without confirming their names on a guest list.

A disturbing picture

The historical list of perimeter breaches indicates that intruders have reached the president or another person under Secret Service protection eight times since 1980, including the Salihis. Four of the incidents involved the same man.

The summary paints a disturbing picture of how difficult it is to stop determined intruders -- often mentally ill -- even as it notes that violent or commando-style raids have not occurred, and that terrorists or organized adversaries are unlikely to risk a head-on attack.

Then-Director Brian Stafford commissioned the review in 2001 after the service was humiliated for a third time by the most notorious presidential gate-crasher, Richard C. Weaver, who evaded inauguration security to shake George W. Bush's hand. Weaver, a California minister, had previously infiltrated a 1991 prayer breakfast attended by then-President George H.W. Bush, and Clinton's 1997 inaugural luncheon. He approached the younger Bush again at a prayer breakfast in 2003 before being arrested.

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