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Dunsmore: White House Security

While covering seven American presidents, I reported on the two threats to President Gerald Ford - and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. And over the years I had regular interaction with Secret Service agents in the White House detail.

I think it is fair to say they nearly all registered high on the “Gung Ho meter,” as you would expect from those who without hesitation were expected to give their lives for those they were assigned to protect. They seemed to spend a lot of time pumping iron and staying in shape. And while polite, generally kept their distance from reporters.

The new technologies and social networks have presented the Secret Service with many new challenges. But high tech also provides them with sophisticated new weapons - as I was to discover shortly after I turned in my foreign correspondent’s raincoat.

As a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, I was working on a research paper analyzing the potential consequences of live television coverage of war. One of my interviewees was the Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry. As I no longer had a White House Press badge, I went through a full security check at the Northwest White House gate. After being cleared and given a visitors pass, I walked up and into the offices of the West Wing. After another security check and just as I was about to be taken to McCurry’s office, an alarm went off. I was immediately stopped firmly by a uniformed officer who grabbed my bag and demanded, “Are you carrying something nuclear?” For a moment, I was totally perplexed. Then suddenly I remembered that the day before I’d had a Thallium heart stress test. Thallium is a nuclear isotope. I explained this to the officer, who radioed his superior. Apparently this had happened before, and after some discussion, I was escorted to my appointment.

It still impresses me that a miniscule amount of nuclear material in my blood stream was instantly detected in the West Wing. And generally, I find it hard to reconcile my experiences with the Secret Service, and the kind of Keystone Cops performance demonstrated in recent years-- six incidents of fence jumpers, agents carousing while on foreign trips, and bullets breaking windows on the Truman Balcony but going undetected by agents for four days.

On Tuesday I watched two hours of testimony by Julia Pierson, the first woman Director of the Secret Service. The Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight is Republican Congressman Darryl Issa who has adopted former Senator Joe McCarthy as a role model. His professed concern for the person of the current president doesn’t exactly ring true. But, the criticisms of Pierson’s leadership were strongly bi-partisan. And to be frank, she did not make a very persuasive case for herself or her president. He is hardly to blame for the Secret Service shortcomings, but in the heat of an election campaign, it’s his competence that is implicitly being questioned.