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As the nation is on the brink of war and the danger of an attack on the homeland mounts, the Bush administration has made an important personnel change that many say was long overdue: It finally has replaced the Clinton appointee who headed the U.S. Secret Service for almost four years with a distinguished law-enforcement veteran of its own choosing.
Brian Stafford, who was appointed in 1999, quietly announced his resignation in December in the face of scrutiny from U.S. News & World Report about Secret Service morale and from Insight about problems with a new White House access-control system pushed through in the final months of the Clinton administration.
Many sources familiar with the agency tell Insight that the administration’s choice for the Secret Service’s new director, W. Ralph Basham, is meant to send a message. Unlike previous directors, Basham was not promoted from within. He had retired from the Secret Service in 1998 after 28 years in jobs ranging from protecting the vice president to strategic planning, and became director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. In January 2002, he was named chief of staff for the new Transportation Security Administration that was created after the Sept. 11 attacks; then he was sworn to head the Secret Service on Jan. 27, 2003.
Basham earned wide respect in the law-enforcement community for his work at the training center, where his goal as he described it to Georgia’s Athens Banner-Herald was to “create [a climate] as close to realism as you possibly can as to what you’re going to see on the streets so that when the officers go out there, they’re not surprised.”
The job he did bringing the TSA online under emergency conditions is seen by industry leaders as little short of miraculous. Secret Service observers with whom Insight spoke are hopeful that Basham’s diverse range of law-enforcement experience will help him tackle what they say is the wide range of security lapses at the Secret Service, but they warn he has a big job ahead of him.
In early February, the Secret Service suffered embarrassment when the Rev. Rich Weaver, known as the “Handshake Man,” again evaded agents and officers to deliver a personal, handwritten message to President George W. Bush. Weaver, who shook the hands of Bush and Bill Clinton at their inaugurations without Secret Service clearance or approval, slipped by the Secret Service at the National Prayer Breakfast in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, lifted the rope around Bush’s table and gave the president a personal letter he says Jesus commanded him to write. A Secret Service spokesman maintained to the Washington Post that Weaver did go through the metal detectors and that the procedure would have protected the president had someone armed and dangerous attempted a similar stunt, but few were reassured.
Much more problematic than Weaver is the example of an illegal alien working for a catering firm who was a supervisor of tent installation at White House events even though his fingerprints were on file in a federal law-enforcement database, according to an article by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin.
And, as this reporter revealed last fall, the Secret Service’s new computerized access-control system for the White House, built in the final months of the Clinton administration and put in place just after Bush arrived, apparently has left the White House complex even more vulnerable. Retired Secret Service officer Bill Castle and other sources familiar with the system told Insight that the system frequently crashes and gives inaccurate data about White House guests and employees. Insight also discovered that the chief executive officer and controlling shareholder of the company that was the lead contractor for the project was a mysterious Swiss resident named Niklaus Zenger, who had ties to the current Russian military and its Soviet predecessor and had been accused by former business associates of stealing proprietary technology.
Zenger since has been forced out, largely as a result of news articles about such matters. But critics say the whole outrageous affair illustrates why the Secret Service must exercise more due diligence over the companies and contractors that deal with the White House. Meanwhile, this magazine has learned that design problems with the new system have produced woefully inaccurate data about the length of time visitors have stayed at the White House, opening the door to potential threats against the president, his family and staff.
Gary Aldrich, who served as senior agent in the FBI liaison office at the White House during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and who wrote the best-selling memoir “Unlimited Access,” says many of the current security lapses are a result of the Clinton administration’s disregard for security procedures and disrespect for the Secret Service in general.
“There are so many ways Bill Clinton demoralized the Secret Service,” says Aldrich, now president of the Patrick Henry Center, a think tank in Fairfax, Va. “One of the most specific ways would be to disregard the good suggestions that were well-founded about how to protect the White House premises and which people to keep out and which people to allow in. He also abused them by sending them on silly errands to drugstores for ointments or whatever. It is outrageous to misuse Secret Service agents by trying to turn them into valets, and I think there was a tendency on the part of the Clinton administration to abuse all the people who served them in security capacities, including the Secret Service and the military.”
U.S. News & World Report backs up Aldrich’s assertion about the Clintons’ mistreatment of the Secret Service. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the magazine reported in December, the Clintons lashed out at the Secret Service because of officers telling what they knew to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The magazine relates an anecdote about Hillary Clinton cursing at Secret Service officer Matthew Hurden in 1998 after Hurden greeted her with a simple, “Good morning, ma’am.” A spokesman for now-senator Clinton denied all, but the Washington-based magazine reported that multiple sources “confirm the same account.” The magazine also reported that Stafford was made head of the Secret Service despite the fact that he was “widely believed to be involved in an extramarital [relationship] with [a woman] who worked in the White House.” Some say it was largely because he played ball with Clinton on the Lewinsky affair and other potential embarrassments. Stafford did not return messages.
During the Clinton days some of the best Secret Service employees left for other agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Aldrich believes that by installing Basham – one of those who left during the Clinton era – Bush is sending a signal to principled employees who left that if they return they will work in a professional atmosphere under an able director.
“This is a way of bringing them back,” Aldrich says. “Basham is a quality guy. The Secret Service would know him by his reputation. That’s the way I read it.”
But the culture at the Secret Service also needs to be changed for it to be able to provide the highest level of protection to the president and his family and White House team in this time of heightened alert to terrorism, insiders say. These sources tell Insight that holdovers at the agency still are more interested in suppressing internal criticism than in fixing security problems. Just as there has been, according to U.S. News & World Report, “a major leak investigation by the Secret Service’s inspection division to identify agents and officers who may have spoken to U.S. News,” the Secret Service’s technical division also has been probing where Insight received its information, grilling employees and contractors about who may have spoken to this magazine out of concern for the president’s safety.
“They responded with an internal cover-up rather than investigating what’s wrong with the [access-control] system,” says a disgusted Secret Service source who wished to remain anonymous. When this reporter recently called Castle, the retired Secret Service officer who went on record in the first story about the problems with the security computer system, he said gravely, “I have no comment.”
Meanwhile, concerned sources say Basham needs to get his arms around the problem with the access-control system. And Insight has obtained a document that may indicate a major problem in keeping records of the length of times guests spend at the White House. This reporter received in an envelope with a California return address a copy of a memo with the Ultrak letterhead written by the company’s senior vice president of technology, Ray Payne. Ultrak was one of the lead contractors on the security project. Secret Service spokesmen did not dispute the authenticity of the memo, which indicates that if a guest forgets to put his or her pass in a scanner when leaving, the computer will assign an arbitrary exit time. The memo, dated Feb. 5, 2002, confirms that the system will “force” a “time of departure” (TOD) if the White House pass is not put into the scanner upon exiting. That is, if no time of departure is recorded within 12 hours of a guest’s arrival, the system will “set TOD to TOA [time of arrival] plus 12 hours.”
So if a White House visitor were to arrive at 11 a.m., and then forget to put his pass in the scanner when leaving two hours later, the system would record that he left the White House 12 hours later, at 11 p.m. If not fixed, this could be a severe problem should an investigation be required to identify who was in the White House at a certain time and for how long. In the normal course of things it is simply embarrassing to security. Insight spoke with one reporter who forgot to put the pass in the scanner when finished with covering the White House in the afternoon. The Secret Service later asked why the reporter was on the premises until around midnight.
Other sources say the previous system simply would cancel the pass and record no time of departure if the pass had not been returned. They worry that innocent people might be implicated in White House investigations if this is not fixed immediately. “If they’re doing an investigation and trying to pin somebody with something, and they’re trying to pinpoint times, it could be a nightmare,” says a source familiar with the Secret Service system.
Secret Service spokesman John Gill tells Insight that “the access-control system operates precisely in the manner in which it was designed. We are very satisfied with the performance of this system. … By no means does the Secret Service rely solely on the access-control system to monitor individuals entering or exiting the complex.”
Ultrak did not respond.
Ultimately, White House insiders say, the problems with the computer system go back to the culture of the agency, something they believe Basham will have to change. “Secret Service officers are afraid to report to the higher-ups when they have to reboot the computers,” says a Secret Service source. “There’s no accountability.”
Aldrich says the Bush administration needs to do a thorough review of every Secret Service policy change made during the Clinton administration to identify and deal with any current security vulnerability. “As painful as it may be for this administration, they must acknowledge that the eight Clinton years were a national-security nightmare,” Aldrich says. “They should start off fresh, examine every policy to see where the holes are and plug those holes.”
John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.