washingtonpost.com
Secret Service under scrutiny for Salahi slipup
Breach at the state dinner lends new urgency to a review of Secret Service procedures

Ronald Kessler
Chief Washington Correspondent, Newsmax.com and Author, 'In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect'
Tuesday, December 1, 2009 11:00 AM

The Secret Service director and the couple who crashed the Obama administration's first state dinner have been called to testify before Congress on Thursday about the incident.

Ronald Kessler, chief Washington correspondent for Newsmax.com and author of In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, was online Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the Secret Service breach by the Virginia couple, the protection and security of the chief executive and the effect of the incident on the federal law enforcement agency.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security committee, said he wants answers about the Secret Service's security deficiencies that allowed Michaele and Tareq Salahi into the Nov. 24 White House dinner, even though they were not on the guest list.

Photo Gallery: Invitees or crashers?

____________________

Ronald Kessler: Hi. This is Ron Kessler. I'm very happy to be here to discuss In the President's Secret Service and how it relates to the security breach at the White House.

_______________________

Harrisonburg, Va.: Who may end up fired over this incident?

Ronald Kessler: Definitely the Secret Service uniformed division officer who let the couple in knowing that they were not on the guest list and without doing a background check which would've taken 10 minutes and could have turned up that they were wanted for serial murders, that they might be involved with terrorist groups or that they might be agents of Iran or N. Korea, for example. But in my view, the Secret Service Director, Mark Sullivan, should be replaced with a director from outside the agency, not only over this incident but more importantly over the serial corner-cutting that he has allowed to take place in the Secret Service, jeopardizing the life of the president.

_______________________

Leesburg, Va.: On a regular day, people "crashing" the White House would be killed. These people haven't even been charged with anything yet. Why not?

Ronald Kessler: It's standard that unless a law enforcement officer sees a crime being committed, they don't make an immediate arrest. In this case they have to study all the facts and review the possible laws that could be used to prosecute and then probably present the case to a grand jury for indictment.

_______________________

Boston, Mass.: As a fan of politics, I can't tell you how many times I have shaken hands or exchanged brief words with presidents and presidents-to-be up in N.H. The man is on a permanent rope line. Yeah, these idiots were not invited guests, but they were checked before entering and posed no threat. What is the big deal?

Ronald Kessler: They were not checked beforehand. They did pass through magnetometers or metal detectors but they still could have brought in chemical or biological weapons or taken a knife off a table and stabbed the president in the heart. As for rope lines, because the president is not necessarily expected at a particular location, metal dectectors might not always be necessary, but in my view they should be used in every case.

_______________________

Hawthorn Woods, Ill.: Has the investigation uncovered how long they were at the Dinner and when and how they left?

Ronald Kessler: According to Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post's Reliable Source, who was at the dinner and broke the story, they left at about 9 p.m. when dinner started. They did not have a table setting place card so they had to leave.

_______________________

Newport News, Va.: I just want to know how they got caught? We all know they marched through the doors and got in but when, exactly, and how was it determined that they had crashed the party? Were they then unceremoniously ushered back out the door or what?

Ronald Kessler: Roxanne Roberts noticed them at the event, knew who they were, realized that it was unlikely that they had been invited and checked the guest list, only to find that they were not on it. She asked two White House aides about the couple and they were perplexed as well. She then broke the story in the Washington Post and on CNN.

_______________________

Newport News, Va.: I just want to know how they got caught? We all know they marched through the doors and got in but when, exactly, and how was it determined that they had crashed the party? Were they then unceremoniously ushered back out the door or what?

Ronald Kessler: Roxanne Roberts noticed them at the event, knew who they were, realized that it was unlikely that they had been invited and checked the guest list, only to find that they were not on it. She asked two White House aides about the couple and they were perplexed as well. She then broke the story in the Washington Post and on CNN.

Ronald Kessler: Roxanne Roberts noticed them at the event, knew who they were, realized that it was unlikely that they had been invited and checked the guest list, only to find that they were not on it. She asked two White House aides about the couple and they were perplexed as well. She then broke the story in the Washington Post and on CNN.

_______________________

Boston, Mass.: Is it safe to assume that the Secret Service agent who let these people into the initial gate and the Pentagon press person's careers in government are effectively over?

Ronald Kessler: There is no question that the uniformed division Secret Service officer will be fired and probably has already been suspended. The Pentagon officer did not invite the couple. In fact, she made it clear they were not invited.

_______________________

New York: Ron, thanks for the chat. Aside from the Secret Service, which definitely should take responsibility for the gate-crashers, there also is scrutiny building around the White House social office. What is the accepted procedure for admitting guests to special White House events, or is there one? What's the role of SS and social office?

Ronald Kessler: In the past representatives from the White House social secretary's office have been at the guard post to do an initial check to see if each person is on a list. This may weed out someone who should not be there and facilitates the process, but the Secret Service is solely responsible by law for the security of the White House and the president. The responsibiltiy for determining if they were on the list and doing a background check was solely that of the Secret Service.

But the Secret Service has been cutting corners ever since it was folded into the Dept. of Homeland Security in 2003. It has not requested the necessary funding and personnel to keep up with the increasing protective responsibilities it assumes and the threats against President Obama which have increased by as much as 400% compared with when President Bush was in office.

The corner cutting includes not doing magnetometer screening at major events or shutting it down early when pressured by the staffs of candidates or the White House. Cutting back on the size of counter assault teams, not keeping up to date with the latest and most powerful firearms, and not even allowing agents time for regular firearms requalification or physical training, then covering that up by asking agents to fill out their own test scores. In addition, the Secret Service has been bowing to pressure by some protectees such as Mary Cheney, Dick Cheney's daughter, who insisted that agents take her friends to restaurants. That is not the job of the Secret Service, and when agents refused she got her detail leader removed by Secret Service management.

So not only was the uniformed officer who let the couple in at the White House overwhelmed and aware of the corner cutting by the Secret Service but he was also aware that if he turned the couple away at a glittering state dinner and the White House staff later raised a fuss because they were in fact invited, he could be in trouble with Secret Service management which does not back its agents.

_______________________

Washington, DC: In your opinion, should the Salahis be punished or prosecuted for their actions? Did they commit a crime (other than social suicide)?

Ronald Kessler: I think they should be prosecuted, possibly for trespassing, as a deterrent to such attempts in the future. Today it was a pretty blonde, tomorrow it could be an assassin.

_______________________

New York: Your newsmax.com column implies that Pres. Obama is taking unnecessary risks with his own security. But does a president really know how lax his security is? Who reviews these operations and reports to the president? If magnometers aren't used or turned off, does a president have this kind of info? Thanks.

Ronald Kessler: The president certainly has this kind of information since my book, In the President's Secret Service, came out. Whenever I appear on TV or on the radio to do publicity for the book, people ask how can this happen and why isnt' the president doing something about it. Obama issued a statement after the security breach at the White House saying that he has "full confidence" in the Secret Service.

While it's true that Secret Service agents are dedicated, brave and will take a bullet for the president, Secret Servicew management has been derelict in its duty. If the president continues to express confidence in the Secret Service without replacing the director and totally revamping the management he will be jeopardizing his own life in the opinion of many agents I have interviewed.

In that respect, he will be following, unfortunately, in the footsteps of Abraham Lincolna and John F. Kennedy who also ignored advice to beef up their security.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kessler, you've made the case in statements to the media that the budget of the Secret Service has been cut since it became part of the Department of Homeland Security. That is factually untrue. In the last budget year in which the Secret Service was still part of Treasury (FY 2003), its budget was $1.02 billion. In the current fiscal year (FY 2010), its budget is $1.48 billion. That's a 45 percent increase in seven years, and is certainly above the pace of inflation. Given this, how can you justify your frequent statements that the Secret Service's "budget has shrunk" since it became part of DHS?

Ronald Kessler: The budget did increase just after 9/11 but after 9/11 it began to decrease and that was just before Homeland Security took it over. And since that time the budget has actually decreased when inflation is taken into account. At the same time the Secret Service has been given more responsiblities including protecting the White House chief of staff and the head of the National Security Council. It also protects visiting gheads of state, the national nominating conventions and the Pope when he visits.

Because of the lack of funding agents work ridiculous hours and that leads to an increasin attrition rate, which is as high as 12% a year in the Secret Service uniformed division. That means the Secret Service has less experienced and less qualified agents.

_______________________

New York: Congress is now looking into the security breach. Do you think that these inquiries will lead to a broader look at the Secret Service operations? Thanks for the chat.

Ronald Kessler: It's fine for Congress to investigate but it's really not going to change anything. Congress cannot manage the Secret Service. Only a competent director can do that. We saw how Robert Mueller came in from the outside to become director of the FBI and make changes where necessary in the culture. He is respected by both sides of the aisle. I think he needs someone like that to shake up the Secret Service.

By the way, in reference to the question about the Secret Service budget, when I have said that it's acquisition by the Homeland Security department has been a problem I mean that it now has to compete with 21 other national security agencies for its budget, and that has been part of the problem in discouraging the director from asking for the needed additional funds.

But the problem also goes back to a Secret Service management culture that says we make do with less and we are invincible and therefore do not need a major increase in funding. Given how important it is to protect the president. the current Secret Service buget of $1.4 billion a year is a joke. That' equal to about half the price of Stealth bomber. The budget should be at least doubled or tripled. If you have an assassination you nullify democracy.

_______________________

Arlington, VA: I was at the basketball game that the President attended on Saturday and went through a metal detector. This sort of thing looks like it is really just for show. I know GAO cited the possibility of people walking in with liquids that could be made into dangerous weapons, but how can this sort of thing be monitored at a White House dinner or a basketball game without making them into ordeals for everyone?

Ronald Kessler: Everyone who boards an airplace goes through a magnetometer and it's just as easy to go through a magnetometer for an event attended by the president. If the safety precautions are not taken, the president should not be there. Under the Bush White House aides sometimes pressured the Secret Service to stop magnetometer screening at events and they actually continued to pass people through magnetometers but shut them off so no alarm would sound if metal was detected.

Candidate Obama's staff did the same thing on several occasions including an event in Dallas where again the Secret Service stopped magnetometer screening under pressure. Last April, when Vice President Biden threw the first pitch at the Orioles game in Baltimore, the Secret Service screened none of the people who attended. Both the Baltimore field office of the Secret Service and Biden's own detail were outrage but Secret Service management overruled them.

Aside from the incident at the White House last week the fact that Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan presided over this scandal means that he should be removed.

_______________________

Baltimore: What is so scary about this security lapse is that, as I heard on the news yesterday, the Secret Service receives approximately 30 death threats against the president each day. I know that each one must be investigated, so that must place substantial addition strain on an agency already stretched thin. Thanks.

Ronald Kessler: Last March Director Mark Sullivan testified on the Hill that threats against President Obama are up substantially and he said that some additional personnel have been hired to analyze the additional threats, which unfortunately are racially based. But nothing has been done to increase the number of agents needed to investigate the threats so the increase in threats has contributed to the Secret Service's problem of being understaffed and underfunded.

_______________________

Atlanta: If the Secret Service was told by a high ranking Washington official that this couple be allowed to enter, would they be obligated to allow this? Could this be a cover-up of an official?

Ronald Kessler: Everyone understands that when they are invited to a high profile party they must be invited by the host in order to be on the guest list so they can be cleared in. It's the same with a White House party. You receive an invitation in the mail. You then supply your Social Security number and date of birth to the White House social secretary's office and the Secret Service does a background to see if you might be a threat.

If everything is okay you are told you are okay to attend. None of that heppened in the case of the party crashers.

_______________________

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: Why were they introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Salhali when the entered the receiving line if they weren't invited or on some sort of list?

Ronald Kessler: The cards that annouce each guest before they are introduced to the president are prepared in advance. In this case a White House staffer must have written in their names on the spot.

_______________________

Poplar Bluff, Mo: Ron, thanks for the chat. I heard the couple has been called to testify before Congress. Knowing the prima-dona inclination of this couple, what do you expect at the hearing?

Ronald Kessler: Given that the couple just appeared this morning on the NBC Today show I expect that they will appear and probably will testify. But they are obviously in dreamland because they seem to think that by saying they believed that they were invited that will be a convincing argument that they were invited. It's like burglars being caught in a house and saying they believed that they were invited.

_______________________

Rochester, NY: When you did the publicity tours for your book on the Secret Service, you mentioned that some retired agents were stunned to learn that certain procedures were no longer followed. Do you think those procedures will be revived?

Ronald Kessler: I'm doubtful that the procedures that were followed before Homeland Security took over will be reinstituted in part because the Secret Service is so underfunded and undermanned now that it's difficult to do the job properly. I don't think that Director Mark Sullivan has a firm grasp of what is really going on in the Service and how much corner cutting has been occurring. But his dismissive attitude about the problems means that they will not be solved as long as he is director.

The former agents who I interviewed up to the level of deputy director coul not believe that the Secret Service now is either not doing magnetometer screening at major events or shutting them down early. They are quoted on the record in my book as saying they never would have allowed that under their watch.

_______________________

Washington, DC: How is India reacting to this breach? It seems to me that the PM of India has at least as many enemies as the President. And what would it have done to U.S./India relations if something had happened to him or his entourage?

Ronald Kessler: That's a very good point. It's embarrasing to our country that we exposed the prime minister of India to possible risk and it will make others who may be heads of state wonder if they should accept an invitation to a White House event.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: If, as alleged, Desiree Rogers intentionally opted not to post someone from the White House Social Office at the gate, should she also lose her job? It's easy to blame everything on the Secret Service, but it seems like others had a role in the lapse as well.

Ronald Kessler: As I said before, while having representatives of the social secretary's office would have facilitated matters, the Secret Service is solely responsible for the security of the White House and the president. Some have wondered whether the fact that the Secret Service does not do magnetometer screening or shuts it down early is well-founded. In my Newsmax.com today I go into the fact that when I interveiwed Nicholas Trotta, who head protection at the Secret Service, for the book, he first said that everyone goes through magnetometer screening but when I asked him about the many times when they do not he admitted on the record that that was true and then defended it saying that some of the people could be placed at high levels of a stadium. It would take a second for 20 terrorists with weapons or grenades that have not been screened to run down from a high level of a stadium and kill a president before agents could take them out.

That is the kind of risk that the Secret Service is taking. In fact, President George W. Bush was almost killed by a man with a grenade in the country of Georgia because local authorities shut down magnetometer screening and the grenade was not detected. As it turned out, even though the grenade landed near President Bush it did not detonate. We do not want that to happen to our president.

_______________________

Ronald Kessler: Thank you very much for all the good questions and for taking this subject as seriously as it should be taken.

_______________________

_______________________

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive