The Secret Service Has Been Embarrassed Before

Allan Lengel

WASHINGTON – The Salahis were hardly the first to embarrass the Secret Service by crashing presidential security. And it will probably happen again.

One man did it twice. The Rev. Rich C. Weber shook hands with President Clinton at his second inauguration, then was back four years later in 2001, welcoming President George W. Bush with a brief conversation. There were also more frightening incidents — a man who hopped the White House gate with a .38-caliber revolver and got within 50 feet of the residence. Another man crashed a plane into the White House.

But until Tareq and Michaele Salahi attended a state dinner uninvited last week, even posing for pictures, maybe none of the intruders displayed quite the aplomb that Robert Latta did on Jan. 20, 1985.

RELATED: List: Notable Breaches of Presidential Security

Latta, a 45-year-old water meter reader from Denver, sneaked into the East Entrance of the White House with the Marine Band about two hours before President Reagan was sworn in for his second term.

Then Latta walked around the White House unchallenged for almost 15 minutes. At one point, he wandered into the State Dining Room and sat at a chair at the president’s table. Reagan was not in the White House at the time.

And the meter reader didn’t even have to dress up like the Salahis did. The band members were in uniform. Latta was not. Band members carried their instruments. Latta carried a bag.

Reagan spokesman Larry Speakes at the time said the Secret Service Sentries thought Latta was with the band. The band leader thought he was a “staff member.”

“Obviously we made a mistake,” Speakes told the Chicago Tribune.

Ex-Secret Service Agent Joe LaSorsa was on the Reagan protection detail at the time of that security breach in 1985, but was not involved in the incident. He knows the challenges involved with protecting the president and the White House in a bustling urban area filled with tourists and in close proximity to Reagan National Airport.

Plus, he said, the White House requires “immeasurable access.”

“People need access. Reporters need access, government officials need access. You have employees,” said LaSorsa, who runs a private security consulting firm in south Florida called JA LaSorsa & Associates. “It’s an access control dilemma.”

LaSorsa declined to comment on the latest breach involving the Salahis. But he acknowledged that Latta’s intrusion was painful for the agency.

“None of us had positive feelings,” he said.

For every breach, however, he said an examination follows and security improves. Some improvements are discreet. Others are more blatant, like the decision by Clinton in May 1995 to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to all but pedestrian traffic. That move, which the Secret Service had pushed for, came several weeks after the truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and several months after a man crashed a plane into the White House.

Still, “there is no such thing as perfect security,” James G. Huse Jr., retired assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service, noted in a column this week.

“Any security system for public dignitaries that depends on the discretionary judgments of humans has to accept the risk of human error as a variable. Indeed, in this incident the failure of these controls at a critical checkpoint allowed the Salahis their uninvited access,” he wrote.

“Nevertheless, what is not clearly reported,” he wrote of the latest incident, “is that other concurrent security operations were successfully performed at the state dinner that assured the safety of the President and his distinguished Head of Government guest.”

Huse also recalled a troublesome moment when he was a special agent.

“I remember the state arrival ceremonies on the South Grounds of the White House, in 1979 for the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, that were disrupted by an unruly individual in the press pool who screamed out unflattering epithets at the visiting dignitary during his speech,” he wrote.

An investigation revealed that impostor had claimed affiliation with a nonexistent publication to gain the press credentials. “Neither President Carter or Leader Deng Xiaoping were endangered in any way,” Huse noted.

As an assistant director, he was also the chief investigator for the White House security review that followed the September 1994 small-plane crash on the South Grounds of the White House, and for the October 1994 incident when Francisco Duran fired semiautomatic weapons at people on the North Grounds of the White House.

Current Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan took full responsibility for the breach by the Salahis at a congressional hearing this week. But the agency feels the criticism has overshadowed the good work it has done.

“In spite of last week’s incident, the safety of those we protect has been and remains the agency’s highest priority,” Secret Service spokesman Malcolm D. Wiley Sr. said in a statement issued Thursday night. “In the last year alone, we safely cleared 1.2 million visitors through the White House without incident. However, we clearly understand that there is absolutely no margin for error, and we will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that this type of failure is not repeated.

“We as an agency are constantly in a state of self-assessment. We do not have the luxury of celebrating the successes we have had, but rather we have always scrutinized, studied and adjusted to mistakes and emerging threats.”

Author Ronald Kessler doesn’t think the agency is doing enough. He was highly critical of the Secret Service in his book “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.” He also wrote an unflattering column on the security breach by the Salahis for Newsmax.com.

“The fact the couple was allowed in in this dangerous age is a disgrace and is symptomatic of lax standards at the Secret Service since it was absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2003,” Kessler wrote. “What is needed is a shakeup of Secret Service management, including replacement of Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan with a director from the outside who will change the management culture.”

As for Robert Latta, he was charged with a misdemeanor but apparently never prosecuted. He had his brief moment of fame as a recurring gag by comedian Rich Hall on “Saturday Night Live.”

The Salahis certainly seem like an “SNL” skit waiting to happen.