It was always grimly ironic that one of Abraham Lincoln's last official acts before heading to Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865 was to approve Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch's plan to create a new division within his agency called the Secret Service.
The agents of that famed organization were not deputized in time to protect Lincoln from his assassin – inexplicably, the Civil War commander in chief was barely guarded at all. Nor were the Treasury agents able to prevent the assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901. The Secret Service, you see, was created to stop the spread of counterfeit money. Congress, worried that Americans were losing presidents at an alarming rate, finally amended the agency's responsibilities in 1902, and the modern U.S. Secret Service was born. But is it any good at protecting presidents?
"The fact that party crashers were allowed into a White House state dinner without being on the guest list is emblematic of the Secret Service's corner cutting detailed in my book," Kessler said in an e-mail. "It's clear from the Secret Service's comment that the agency not only ignored the fact that the couple was not on the guest list but also did not do the usual background check to ensure that they were not possible threats."
Secret Service spokesman Edward Donovan, conceding that "our procedure wasn't followed," sought to downplay the potential threat to the president. He pointed out that, like the 300-plus invited guests, the Salahis had to pass through metal detectors to make sure they weren't carrying firearms or knives. "Everyone went through the other levels of security and the metal detectors," Donovan said on Thanksgiving as this story began to pick up steam. He also told The Washington Post
: "Everyone who enters the White House grounds goes through magnetometers and several other levels of screenings. That was the case with the state dinner last night. No one was under any risk or threat."
Surely that seems like scant assurance in post-anthrax America, a nervous nation in which millions of air travelers headed to grandma's aren't allowed to bring so much as a bottle of shampoo into the cabin.
"The fact that the couple was allowed in this dangerous age is a disgrace and is symptomatic of lax standards at the Secret Service ever since it was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003," Kessler says.
In interviews and in his book, which was released in July, Kessler has maintained that the Secret Service is staffed by brave and dedicated line officers whose mission is routinely compromised by the agency's leadership, which defers to the ephemeral concerns of presidents and presidential candidates -- and their families. Agency officials admitted to him that they occasionally turn off magnetometers when lines get too long at campaign events, and often waive through visitors not on guest lists to avoid getting in unpleasant arguments with the president's political staff.
Interestingly, the lawyer for the Salahis hinted Friday that these kinds of considerations were in play on Tuesday night. Attorney Paul W. Gardner posted a comment on their Facebook page, stating: "My clients were cleared by the White House to be there. More information is forthcoming."
Likewise, Tareq Salahi, who apparently has a working relationship of some kind centering on polo with various officials from India, hinted in back-and-forth e-mails with The Washington Post, which initially broke this story, that his Indian connections played a role in gaining entry to the home of the U.S. commander in chief. Asked how he and his wife had managed to get in without being on the official -- and quite public -- guest list, Salahi replied enigmatically, "It was last-minute attending."
For those who have ever been present at either social or official events at the White House -- and, as someone who covered the beat for 15 years, I've done both countless times -- it defies belief how someone could bluff their way through the gates without being on a list the Secret Service consults at the door. Occasionally, when a name that is supposed to be on the list isn't there, agents check with someone from the White House social secretary's office, who for an event of this type is invariably standing there, clipboard in hand, beside the Secret Service detail.
For reasons that have not been explained, this was not the case last Tuesday. Asked by the Associated Press whether personnel from her office were at the checkpoint, White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers replied: "We were not."
And so, it appears that this was either a social lapse by the White House political staff or a security breach by the armed guards charged by statute with protecting the president – or both. Either way, it's a public relations nightmare for the White House, and one that has now overshadowed a feel-good event of international significance. But it is more than this. It is a frightening reminder of how difficult it is to protect a president, especially in these times, and of the potentially calamitous results of letting down one's guard, even for a pair of smiling, well-dressed partygoers.
In 2008, I interviewed then-Senator Obama in a hotel room in Miami, bringing with me a photographer and two other editors. We were searched multiple times. I remember never having seen security like that even for a sitting president, despite the fact that I was well-known by the top aide traveling with the nominee. I asked an agent I knew on Obama's Secret Service detail what was going on, and he indicated, without quite saying anything, that the agency was petrified that one of the many threatening kooks it had been hearing from might actually try to harm the man who was on the verge of becoming the first African-American president.
I felt reassured at such diligence, even if it took us as long to gain access to Obama as the time we were allotted to interview him. I recalled then that John F. Kennedy, keenly aware of the risks, used to tell his staff that if an assassin was willing to give up his life to take a president's, there was not much the Secret Service could do.
Tragically, Kennedy was to be the fourth American president gunned down in office. And in the century since the agency began watching over presidents, another half-dozen have been wounded or shot at, including both Roosevelts (TR was shot in the chest a year and a half after he left office – and while running again – and FDR was shot at a month before his inauguration). Blair House was the site of a running gun battle in a bloody attack while Harry Truman was staying there, although the president was unhurt. And two armed women stalked Gerald Ford in separate incidents, one of whom managed to get off several shots. Ronald Reagan, of course, was nearly killed by a deranged gunman.
In the Age of Terrorism, the advent of the suicide bomber has made JFK's morbid calculation infinitely more difficult for the U.S. Secret Service. There are plenty of murderers out there willing to give their own lives to kill others, and the Service must somehow protect our chief executive from that threat. It is a daunting job, but being hoodwinked by a social-climbing couple that lives above its means and is currently auditioning for a tacky Bravo network reality show does not give Americans much confidence that the Secret Service, working in tandem with the president's political staff, is up to it.