(Updates below - Update I: NYT matches AP's obliviousness; Update II: In latest article by Star-Telegram, "former head of the FBI in Dallas who was in charge of the agency's investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing" slams Service Service's actions at rally.)
On Thursday, I wrote about a frightening lapse in security at Wednesday's Obama rally in Dallas. Reporter Jack Douglas Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke the story and has since written a follow-up, to which he updated yesterday. I noted on Thursday that the mainstream media (with the exception of UPI) had completely ignored this story, which has largely continued, with the Associated Press going so far as to publish an article Friday titled "Many Blacks Worry About Obama's Safety" yet without referencing in the piece what had occurred at Wednesday's Dallas rally. Friday's broadcast of NBC Nightly News did mention an alleged breach of security, but the report - a shoddy piece of journalism driven solely by the Secret Service's official denial - was summarily tacked on to the end of a separate report on the Obama campaign. Additionally, in comments left on Douglas' articles on the Star-Telegram's website (one of which he published in his follow-up) and other sites around the web (including this one), people have provided firsthand accounts of the same type of lax security at Obama rallies throughout the country (yes, they need to be corroborated, but they reveal a pattern of lax security that also demands further investigation into this matter).
First, an exploration of the insufficient Secret Service response to these charges, followed by the deplorable NBC Nightly News segment and then a brief reminder of who controls the Secret Service.
Secret Service Denies Security Lapse
Jack Douglas' follow-up includes the Secret Service's denial of any security breach:
"There were no security lapses at that venue," said Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington. He added there was "no deviation" from the "comprehensive and layered" security plan, implemented in "very close cooperation with our law enforcement partners."
Zahren rebutted suggestions by several Dallas police officers at the rally who thought the Secret Service ordered a halt to the time-consuming weapons check because long lines were moving slowly, and many seats remained empty as time neared for Obama to appear.
"It was never a part of the plan at this particular venue to have each and every person in the crowd pass through the Magnetometer," said Zahren, referring to the device used to detect metal in clothing and bags.
So basic checks, the kind performed at any major sporting or music event, were never "part of the plan"? If such checks can be carried out for, say, 20,000 people at a Springsteen concert or 50,000 at a Yankee game, why is it too much to expect the same for our nation's leading Democratic presidential candidate?
Douglas goes to report that Zahren "declined to give the reason for checking people for weapons at the front of the lines and letting those farther back go in without inspection."
"We would not want, by providing those details, to have people trying to derive ways in which they could defeat the security at any particular venue," Zahren said.
Sure, he wouldn't want to tip off those would-be criminal masterminds to what thousands of people across the country already know: that (at least up until now) arriving late and hanging in the back of the line is the surest way to enter without being checked for a weapon.
The article ends with unique spin from the Dallas police brass:
Lt. V.L. Hale III, a spokesman for the Dallas Police Department, said in a statement Friday that he would not comment on security measures at the Obama rally except to say there was no arrest or incident and that it was a "success from a police standpoint."
So according to Dallas Police Department officials (as opposed to the officers who were shocked and alarmed by the lapse in security), no one actually getting shot or blown up is a "success." Of course, that's not success, but luck.
In Douglas' updated article, he reports on an additional bit of PR spin, provided by a "lawyer and consultant for security concerns," who, unwittingly, seems to confirm a security lapse did indeed occur.
The Secret Service may have been doing all it could at the rally, said Keith Howse, a lawyer and consultant for security concerns and a former assistant police chief for the sprawling Baylor Health Care System.
Howse, who was not at the rally, said the Secret Service may have been screening the people closest to the candidate while letting others go in unchecked who were seated far away in the spacious, 17,000-seat arena.
"It may have ended up not being the best of all worlds, but it might not have been a flat-out security breach," he said, adding: "I think it's important to understand that the Secret Service would not sink below minimum protection" for a presidential candidate.
Settling for making the possible future President of the United States merely a slightly harder target is an acceptable level of security? Doesn't Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, deserve "the best of all worlds" when it comes to federal protection? (Incidentally, I'd be interested to know if Douglas contacted Howse, or if Howse contacted him unsolicited - and if so, if Howse is working in the capacity of security consultant and council for the Dallas Police Department in this matter, or, possibly, even in that role for the Secret Service in this particular case.)
NBC Nightly News Coverage of the "Alleged" Security Breach
Brian Williams spared 75 seconds for this story on Friday night. He sounded annoyed while framing it for his viewers, his voice betraying an utter lack of curiosity. Williams' handling of this segment displayed the worst of network news: a failure to frame a story with intellectual honesty or to ask and follow up on the most glaringly obvious questions. NBC may have been better off taking its competitors' lead and ignoring this news altogether. Instead, this lame effort turned out to be even more insulting - to its viewers, to the safety of a potential future president, and to journalism in general.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: One more piece of business today, the Texas newspaper, the Times…the, uh, Star-Telegram has a story today, among others recently, alleging that at a heavily populated Obama rally, a Secret Service security check point – magnetometers checking for potential weapons in peoples bags, laptops, that kind of thing - was up and then it was taken down. The gist of it was not everybody attending the rally had been swept for threats. Has this come up and what’s the response?
LEE COWAN: It has. This was in response to a rally that was in Dallas on Wednesday, Brian. At that rally, it was said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, that those magnotometers were taken down at about halfway through so they could get people into the event, help ease some of the long lines outside. The Secret Service, however, said that is not the case - every event is different, every venue is different, but that they did not deviate from their original security plans. That that was not ever part of the plan, and there is no security risk whatsoever.
As Cowan delivered this last line, he demonstratively waved his hand downward, consciously or not, dramatizing the Secret Service's message: Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.
And Williams' probing follow-up?
BRIAN WILLIAMS: All right. Lee Cowan with the Obama campaign in Corpus Christi, which will rap up our political coverage for tonight.
work. No mention of the Dallas police officers on the security detail,
whose eyewitness accounts not only run counter to Secret Service spin
but were downright chilling in their fearfulness and incredulity. No
questioning of the Secret Service's stated logic to check just some of
the crowd at the rally while allowing thousands to stream in without even
a cursory search. Why didn't Cowan simply read the Secret Service press
release rather than playacting as if this were a news report? What a feckless charade.
Another thing this inept report failed to note was that people around the country are coming forward with accounts of similar security breaches at other Obama rallies. Their experiences have yet to be verified, but journalists should be following up on them - interviewing these people, seeing what they say and going back to law enforcement officials in the cities where these other rallies occurred to corroborate their stories.
This is journalism 101, folks. Just as we should expect the most basic security protection for our presidential candidates, we should also expect at least a minimal exploration into what the hell is happening when that security is not provided.
Entrenched Incompetence Is Entrenched Incompetence
It's important to remember that the Secret Service is not some agency operating separately from the administration that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are still running.
In fact, on March 1, 2003, this administration officially made the U.S. Secret Service part of the United States Department of Homeland Security. (You might have heard of that crack federal department, the same one that seven years after 9/11 still can't ensure our airline cargo is checked.) Before that change, since its inception in 1865, the Secret Service had been part of the United States Department of Treasury, operating as a distinct organization within that department beginning in 1883. So what's your guess? That Secret Service improved or worsened under this administration after it was subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security? I would take odds on the latter, but I'm not a betting man.
So here's the bottom line: without detailing all of this administration's constitutional law-breaking (torture, secret prisons, wiretapping, etc.), its long record of criminal negligence alone - from the security breakdown on 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq ("You go with the army you have, not the army you want") to Katrina ("Heckuva job, Brownie!") to the recently revealed diseased beef supply - is reason enough to be deeply troubled by Secret Service claims that its protection is sufficient when only some participants at presidential candidate events are being checked for weapons.
Clearly something is not quite right here. Hopefully enough light will shine on this matter before a preventable tragedy occurs as a consequence of our media, our leaders and our citizens paying too little attention.
One last thing: We don't need conspiracy theories to muddy this picture. They would only result in making people take this viable security concern less seriously. We need to get to the bottom of this now. We have plenty of facts to go on already. And as the subhead says above: entrenched incompetence is entrenched incompetence. This administration's pitiful record of protecting its own citizens and innocent people around the world should make us all concerned that these are the same people charged with safeguarding someone who's as big a target as Barack Obama.
UPDATE: Mimicking the extraordinary cognitive dissonance of Friday's Associated Press article, The New York Times today published a 1,314-word story titled "In Painful Past, Hushed Worry About Obama," in which it discusses people's fears of his assassination but manages to omit any mention of the reported security lapse during Obama's rally in Dallas last Wednesday (or any eyewitness accounts of similar lax security at Obama events across the country). Not. One. Word. Very strange. There's simply no excuse for this.
UPDATE II: From the latest Star-Telegram article on this incident:
Danny Defenbaugh, former head of the FBI in Dallas who was in charge of the agency's investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, questioned why guards would suddenly stop searching for weapons at the front gates of a place like Reunion Arena, with a presidential candidate about to walk on stage.
"Why were they doing it in the first place," said Defenbaugh, now a security consultant, adding that "of course" the screening for weapons should have continued.
At Wednesday's rally, several Dallas police officers who were uneasy about the change in security said they thought it was made to speed up the long lines of people. The Secret Service has since said that was not a consideration.
There is no good reason to change procedures during an event, Defenbaugh said.
"If you change your security procedures, someone's going to have to justify, if there is an incident, that that change was proper," he said.
The article actually leads with Obama saying his personal safety on the campaign trail is not a focus for him. And can you blame him? Imagine going from venue to venue, making speeches before massive crowds, with your opponent and the media ready to pounce on every word you say. There's just no way to be effective while carrying around such fears. And he shouldn't have to, anyway: it's the Secret Service's job to protect him.
As for the Secret Service's performance, Obama praises them in the piece, calling them "the best in the business" and the detail assigned to him "outstanding," adding, "I can't say enough about them and how much I appreciate the work that they've done."
Now ask yourself this: Wouldn't you say the same if you were in his shoes? How does it benefit Obama's safety in anyway to knock those protecting him? It doesn't. There is nothing Obama himself can do. It must come from others, making sure all that can be done, is being done.