Criticism of the Secret Service's security lapse is intense -- all the more so within the agency itself, which issued an extraordinary (and rapid) apology for an incident that may -- or may not -- have exposed President Obama to more danger. Active duty agents won't talk on the record, so I sought out Bruce Bowen, a former assistant special agent in charge of the presidential protective detail under President Clinton, deputy director of the Secret Service, and expert in magnetometer screening, for some perspective. Bowen, now retired, is a consultant for Command Consulting Group.
First question, basic question: was this incident a threat to the protectees?
We have different perimeters of security at the White House. This occurrence...let's call it an incident -- involved the outer most perimeter. The uniformed division officer failed to check a list and made an assumption that it would be checked at some later time. That doesn't preclude the fact that other layers of security exist throughout the complex and continued to be in effect. In my experience, for a state dinner, there are about 300 and 350 guests, and the Secret Service staffs accordingly. I don't think the president was in any danger. I look at this as an administrative shortcoming.
Well, some critics, like Rep. Peter King and Ron Kessler, who's written a very critical book on the Service, say that either of the two people could have brought anthrax into the complex or picked up a knife.
We have very sophisticated measures to preclude these things from happening. Rep. King knows full well what the security protocols of the White House are; he's been in the classified briefings, so for him to say that, well that probably wasn't as well put as it should have been. Look, a million plus people have been screened at the White House, and nothing has ever been found. There's been seven million people magged that have been close to our protectees over four years, and that includes a million people at the inauguration. But at the end of the day, as we say, the terrorist only has to be right once. There is no margin for error. And so Director Sullivan is right to be upset. He gathered his staff as soon as this happened and told them that we are going to proceed in a "lessons learned" mode -- what are the facts, what the fallacy was.
Are there tensions between the special agents and the uniformed division?
As you know, the uniformed division has three separate missions -- protecting the 18 acres of the White House complex and the vice president's residence, the foreign missions job and the specialty divisions. In this case, the magnetometer division, which is a special division. They do a fantastic job. And I know the chief of the Uniformed Division [Curtis Eldridge] personally. If there is a tension, I'm sure he's working hard to minimize it. Mark Sullivan is working hard to minimize internecine warfare. [On Ron Kessler's book:] I have not read the book. I don't intend to read the the book. I understand that there's been a number of accusations made by the author that harbor fallacies rather than the fact of the question.
What about the tension between access and democracy and the Secret Service? The White House certainly doesn't do background checks on everyone who takes the Christmas tour or who attends a presidential event where they can shake his hand?
That's true. We're sometimes at the center of opposing philosophies. We would prefer to keep the president in a glass bubble for four or eight years. The staff wants to have maximum exposure. It's our duty to reach a happy medium. President Obama and others have worked ropelines where they've met thousands and thousands of people, and we don't do name checks on all of them. We take lots of measures -- overt and covert -- to prevent an untoward incident from occurring, but to be that invasive in screening, we'd be invading the public's privacy.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.