Secret Service Director Eljay B. Bowron said last night that he regretted that White House guards put on rubber gloves before admitting 50 gay elected officials to a meeting with senior administration officials Tuesday.
Describing what he called the "unfortunate actions," Bowron said "it is not the policy of the Secret Service to wear gloves merely based on known sexual preference," although officers of the uniformed branch of the service "have discretion to wear protective gloves in the performance of their duties."
In a statement issued by the Treasury Department, Bowron said the Secret Service took "seriously discrimination of any sort" and that he would "hold a special training session directed specifically at these matters."
Gay officials were outraged by the incident, which they called a bitter reminder of the need for more education on AIDS. Medical authorities say the virus that causes AIDS cannot be transmitted by casual contact.
"It was insulting," said Mike Nelson, an alderman on the Carrboro, N.C., City Council who said he was among the first people to enter the East Wing reception area. Nelson said he saw at least four Secret Service officers put on rubber gloves taken from a nearby closet. Nelson said two of the officers with gloves worked at the conveyor belt for items to be checked, and the other two with gloves examined bags and looked into briefcases.
Nelson said Oregon state Rep. George Eighmey asked one of the officers why he was putting the gloves on, and the guard reportedly told Eighmey: "For protection."
The day-long meeting included briefings by presidential aide George Stephanopoulos, White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and other senior officials. The new White House liaison for gay and lesbian issues, Marsha Scott, a longtime Clinton friend from Arkansas, was introduced.
Officials found out about the officers' actions when Eighmey recounted the incident involving the gloves.
Vice President Gore, who spoke Tuesday night at a reception for the gay and lesbian officials, was "appalled" when apprised of the incident, according to HHS spokesman Victor Zonana. Gore then made sure to shake hands with every elected official in the room, Zonana said.
The meeting for the state and local officials had been set up to improve relations with the gay community, which has been critical of the administration's decision to stay out of an important Supreme Court case involving gay rights.
Administration officials and several guests said the overall political mission had been accomplished, but several sources said the incident at the visitors' entrance was a bitter reminder of chronic discrimination against gays.
Bowron's statement last night came after White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta asked Treasury Secretary Robert B. Rubin, who oversees the Secret Service uniformed officers who guard the White House, to investigate the incident.
A White House source said it appeared last night that "four of seven officers" at that entrance "did put on gloves."
White House press secretary Michael McCurry said the incident did not affect the meetings, which he said were "very good and established a basis for further discussions." "It's safe to say that the chief of staff and others were distressed by that and believe it to be an error of judgment."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.