A security contractor with a gun and three convictions for assault and battery was allowed on an elevator with President Obama during a Sept. 16 trip to Atlanta, violating Secret Service protocols, according to three people familiar with the incident.
President Obama was not told about the lapse in his security, according to sources. The Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, asked a top agency manager to look into the matter but did not refer it to an investigative unit that was created to review violations of protocol and standards, according to two people familiar with the handling of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The incident, which took place when President Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, rattled Secret Service agents assigned to the president’s protective detail. But despite recent breaches in White House security there have not been adequit measures put in place to ensure the presidents safety.
The private contractor who's name has not been disclosed, first aroused the agents’ concerns when he acted oddly and did not comply with their orders to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator, according to the people familiar with the incident.
When the elevator opened, President Obama left with most of his Secret Service detail. Some agents stayed behind to question the man and then used a national database check that turned up his criminal history.
There were some heated moments Tuesday when Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about two security breaches at the White House, one in 2011 and one less than two weeks ago.
When a supervisor from the firm providing security at the CDC approached and discovered the agents’ concerns, the contractor was fired on the spot. Then the contractor agreed to turn over his gun, surprising agents, who had not realized that he was armed during his encounter with the president.
Extensive screening was designed to keep people with weapons or criminal backgrounds away from the president. But it appears that this man, possessing a gun, came within inches of the president after undergoing no such screening.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who heads a House subcommittee that oversees the Secret Service, first heard of the breakdown from a whistleblower. The details of the case were then confirmed by other people familiar with the agency’s review.
“You have a convicted felon within arm’s reach of the president, and they never did a background check,” Chaffetz said. “Words aren’t strong enough for the outrage I feel for the safety of the president and his family. “
Chaffetz added: “His life was in danger. This country would be a different world today if he had pulled out his gun.”
A Secret Service official, speaking on behalf of the agency, said an investigation of the incident is ongoing. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the pending review.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the incident or say when, or if, the president had been informed of it as of this publishing.
In response to a question at a combative House hearing Tuesday, Pierson said she briefs the president “100 percent of the time” when his personal security has been breached. However, she said that had happened only one time this year: when Omar Gonzalez jumped over the White House fence Sept. 19 and was able to burst into what is allegedly the most secure mansion in the country.
The revelation of the lapse in Atlanta is the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Secret Service.
Pierson drew criticism Tuesday from lawmakers in both parties during the hearing on her agency’s security lapses. The session focused on the Secret Service’s fumbled responses to the recent White House fence jumper and a 2011 shooting attack at the residence.
The fence breach came three days after Obama’s trip to Atlanta.
The elevator incident exposed a breakdown in Secret Service protocols designed to keep the president safe from strangers when he travels to events outside the White House.
Under a security measure called the Arm’s Reach Program, Secret Service advance staffers run potential event staff members, contractors, hotel employees, invited guests and volunteers through several databases, including a national criminal information registry, and records kept by the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Defense Department, among others. Anyone who is found to have a criminal history, mental illness or other indications of risk is barred from entry.
Local police and federal officers are not checked in the same way under the Arm’s Reach Program, with the Secret Service presuming that they meet the safety standards because of their employment in law enforcement. But private security contractors would typically be checked, said two former agents who worked on advance planning for presidential trips.
For nearly every trip the president takes, at least one person is barred from attending or participating in an event because of problems discovered in his or her background, the two former agents said. Most recently, a local political campaign volunteer who was offering to help drive staffers to and from events during a visit had faced an assault charge in the past.
As part of the Secret Service’s review of the elevator incident, Pierson directed a supervising agent on the president’s protective detail to stay in Atlanta to examine the breakdown.
That decision aroused suspicion on Capitol Hill. Chaffetz said he believes that Pierson was most likely trying to keep another security gaffe quiet at a time when her agency and her leadership are under fire.
Former and current agents say Secret Service leaders prefer this kind of informal internal review for assessing potentially embarrassing mistakes. They say such reviews rarely lead to broad reforms or consequences.
These agents also say it is problematic for a presidential protective detail supervisor to review how his team performed because they are less likely to conduct a fair and impartial analysis.