TIME Crime

Letter Sent to White House Tests Tentatively Positive for Cyanide

The envelope has tentatively tested positive for cyanide

(WASHINGTON) — An envelope addressed to the White House has tentatively tested positive for cyanide after two rounds of analysis, the Secret Service said Tuesday. Additional testing will be necessary to confirm the finding.

The letter was received Monday at a facility that screens mail for the White House and is located away from the grounds of the executive mansion and its surrounding buildings in the heart of downtown Washington.

Initial biological testing came back negative, said agency spokesman Robert Hoback.

Additional testing conducted Tuesday returned a “presumptive positive” for cyanide.

The sample has been taken to another facility for further testing.

The Secret Service, which is responsible for the safety and security of President Barack Obama and his immediate family, said its investigation into the letter was continuing and it will have no additional comment on the matter.

Suspicious letters often are sent to some of the country’s leading politicians, including the president. Some test positive for hazardous substances while others include threats of death or other physical harm.

In June 2013, a West Virginia man was indicted on charges of threatening to kill Obama and his family in a letter that included profanity and racial slurs. A federal judge later dismissed the charges after forensic handwriting analysis conducted by the Secret Service showed that 20-year-old Ryan Kirker, of McMechen, West Virginia, didn’t write the letter.

Two months earlier, letters sent to Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Mississippi judge Sadie Holland tested positive for the poison ricin. The letters addressed to the president and to the senator were intercepted before delivery, but one letter reached Holland. She was unharmed.

James Everett Dutschke of Tupelo, Mississippi, pleaded guilty in January 2014 to sending the letters and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The Intercept website, which first reported on Monday’s letter to the White House, said it bore the return address of a man who has sent multiple packages to the executive mansion since 1995, including one that was covered in urine and feces and another that contained miniature bottles of alcohol.

TIME Secret Service

Secret Service Agents Investigated For Crashing Car Into White House Complex

An Officer of Secret Service Uniform Division patrols the front of the White House, Feb. 26, 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP An Officer of Secret Service Uniform Division patrols the front of the White House, Feb. 26, 2015.

The agency has suffered a series of setbacks

(WASHINGTON) The Homeland Security Department is investigating two senior Secret Service agents accused of crashing a car into a White House security barrier, an agency spokesman says.

Secret Service spokesman Robert Hoback said Wednesday that recently appointed Director Joseph Clancy has been briefed on the March 4 incident. Clancy has asked the Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General’s Office to investigate the incident.

Hoback did not provide additional details.

The agency said the two agents have been reassigned to non-supervisory, non-operational jobs.

The Washington Post first reported the investigation Wednesday afternoon. The newspaper reported that the agents drove a government car into a security barrier near the White House after a night of drinking.

The Post reported that one of the agents involved is Mark Connolly, the second-in-command on President Barack Obama’s security detail. The newspaper identified the other agent as George Ogilvie, a senior supervisor in the Washington field office.

The leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — Republican chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah and top Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland — issued a statement Wednesday evening saying, “The fact that this event involved senior-level agents is not only embarrassing but exhibits a clear lack of judgment in a potentially dangerous situation.”

The crash investigation is the latest embarrassment for the agency tasked with protecting the president.

In the last six months, several top agency officials, including former Director Julian Pierson, have been forced out amid revelations of multiple, serious presidential security breaches. In September, a Texas man armed with a knife was able to climb a White House fence and run deep into the executive mansion before being apprehended.

An internal investigation and an outside panel report both described serious problems within the agency.

A four-member panel of former senior government officials concluded in a report released last year that the agency was too insular and starving for leadership.

The panel recommended an agency outsider to replace Pierson, but Obama earlier this year tapped Clancy, a retired agent who led the agency on an interim basis after Pierson’s ouster.

Chaffetz and Cummings, whose committee has been investigating the problems at the agency, said, “Although recent steps have been made to bring new leadership in at the highest levels, this incident begs the question of whether that is enough.”

TIME Secret Service

Top Republican Watchdog Slams Secret Service Director Pick

Joseph Clancy
Susan Walsh—AP Acting Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in 2014.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz says they should have picked someone from outside the agency.

A top Republican critic of former Secret Service director Julia Pierson is not pleased with the Obama Administration’s pick to be her successor.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz said Wednesday that the appointment of acting director Joseph Clancy contradicts the recommendation of an independent panel created by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the embarrassing White House fence-jumping incident in September. Clancy’s appointment over Sean Joyce, a former deputy director of the F.B.I, extends the agency’s 150-year history of being led by a Secret Service agent, according to the New York Times.

“Only a director from outside the Service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require,” argued the report, which was released in mid-December.

Chaffetz said in a statement that it was “disappointing” the President “ignored” the panel’s recommendations.

“The panel made it crystal clear that only a director from outside the agency would meet the needs of the agency today—someone with a fresh perspective, free from allegiances and without ties to what has consistently been described as a ‘good old boys network,'” he said. “The good men and women of the Secret Service are screaming for a fresh start. At this moment in time, the Secret Service would best be served by a transformative and dynamic leader from outside the agency.”

Pierson, the first female Secret Service director, resigned on Oct. 1, a day after a poor performance before Chaffetz’s committee and revelations that an armed security contractor with an arrest record was improperly screened and allowed onto an elevator with the President. A last straw for Pierson was that she did not inform Obama of the security breach.

Chaffetz wished the best for Clancy even if he disagreed with the appointment. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight committee, said he was also ready to work with the new director.

“Joe Clancy has taken strong action over the past several months to begin righting the ship at the Secret Service, he has been extremely responsive to Congress, and his decisive leadership has already resulted in major changes,” said Cummings. “I look forward to working with him closely over the next year to ensure that the Secret Service gets what it needs to fulfill its critical mission.”

TIME White House

Drone That Crashed at White House Was Quadcopter

Drone Quadcopter
Getty Images

A drone that crashed on the White House grounds Monday, causing a brief lockdown, was a two-foot wide remote-controlled quadcopter that is sold in stores, officials said.

According to a Secret Service spokesman, a uniformed division officer stationed on the South Grounds of the complex “heard and observed” the device flying at a low altitude, before it crashed on the southeast side of the 18-acre secure zone around the executive mansion shortly after 3 a.m. Monday. The incident triggered a lockdown of the White House and nearby buildings, as officials scrambled to study the device and ensure it did not pose a threat.

According to Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary, an individual called the agency Monday morning after seeing news reports of the crash to report that they had been in control of the quadcopter. “The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative,” he said. “Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device. This investigation continues as the Secret Service conducts corroborative interviews, forensic examinations and reviews all other investigative leads.”

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in India when the incident occurred. It is not clear whether other family members were present.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that a device had been recovered. “There is a device that has been recovered by the Secret Service at the White House,” he said in a press briefing in New Delhi early Monday. “Early indications are that it does not pose any sort of ongoing threat right now to anybody at the White House.”

The crash follows several high-profile security breaches at the White House that have shaken the Secret Service, including an incident last year when a disturbed man armed with a knife jumped a fence and managed to enter the mansion before being apprehended by officers. Obama subsequently asked the agency’s director to step aside, and her interim replacement has taken steps to reform its top leadership.

Under longstanding Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, no unmanned aerial system may be flown in the 12-13 mile area around Washington Reagan National Airport, which includes airspace over the White House, Pentagon, Naval Observatory and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The proliferation of small drones is posing new challenges not just at sensitive government facilities, but around the country, as cheap systems equipped with cameras pose new privacy concerns and reports of close encounters with private and commercial aircraft rise.

The Secret Service released a photo of the device Monday afternoon, identifying it as a member of the popular DJI Phantom line of quadcopters which retail for several hundred dollars online. It was not immediately clear whether the device was equipped with a camera, or whether it was recording during its flight.

United States Secret Service
TIME White House

4 Officials Dismissed in Secret Service Shake-Up

A tall security fence stands in front of the White House on Nov. 4, 2014 in Washington.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images A tall security fence stands in front of the White House on Nov. 4, 2014, in Washington, D.C.

Acting director Joseph Clancy has told the four top-level officials they will be reassigned within the agency

Four top officials at the U.S. Secret Service are being dismissed from their posts, NBC News confirmed Wednesday.

The Washington Post first reported the shake-up, which comes after much scrutiny following lapses in security in the agency that protects the President and his family.

Secret Service sources tell NBC News that acting director Joseph Clancy has told the four top-level officials they will be removed from their current positions. A senior Administration official adds that the four individuals are being reassigned within the agency. No timeline has been announced.

“Change is necessary to gain a fresh perspective on …

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME White House

White House Fence Must Be Raised ‘Immediately,’ Report Says

White House Security Secret Service
Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images The White House is seen behind a fence on Oct. 3, 2014 in Washington.

An independent review into the practices of the U.S. Secret Service following several high-profile security breaches this year faults the agency for failing to maintain high training and accountability standards.

The executive summary of the classified report details recommendations for the beleaguered agency, which allowed a mentally disturbed man armed with a knife to enter the Executive Mansion, but also notes broad shortcomings to its readiness and training capabilities. On a practical level, it called for raising the fence surrounding the White House immediately following the security breach.

“We recognize all of the competing considerations that may go into questions regarding the fence, but believe that protection of the President and the White House must be the higher priority,” the report states. “As the Executive Branch, Congress, and the Service itself have all recognized, the fence must be addressed immediately.”

The report suggests that raising the fence at least “four or five feet would be materially helpful,” adding that it should be redesigned to eliminate horizontal bars and to potentially curve outward at the top to deter would-be fence-climbers and to give officers more time to respond to a would-be threat. The fence should be replaced around the entire 18-acre complex, not just along Pennsylvania Avenue, where most of the incidents have occurred, the report states.

Prepared by two former Justice Department officials and two former White House aides at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the report faults the department for failing to maintain adequate training standards. The Presidential Protective Division’s so-called “fourth shift,” which is supposed to allow the specialized agents charged with protecting the president to spend two weeks of every eight in training, has “diminished far below acceptable levels,” along with training for the agency’s Uniformed Division, which protects the White House complex. According to the report, apart from basic firearms and career training, the average agent received just 42 hours of training in fiscal year 2013, while the average uniformed division officer received under 25 minutes of training in the entire year.

“The panel’s recommendations are astute, thorough and fair,” Johnson said in a statement, saying Acting Director Joe Clancy has already implemented some of the recommendations.

The report details staffing shortfalls at the White House, where agents and officers have been assigned long duty tours and extended overtime shifts. “Rather than invest in systems to manage the organization more effectively and accurately predict its needs, the Service simply adds more overtime for existing personnel,” the report states, saying the two divisions are “stretched beyond their limits.” “Rather than sending its agents and officers to training, it keeps them at their posts.”

The panel calls on Congress and the Executive Branch to free up money to immediately hire 85 special agents and 200 Uniformed Division officers to allow for more time to be devoted to training, with a further review to determine whether any more are needed.

The report calls on the next director to come from outside the Secret Service, a shift that it says is needed to inject new leadership to address a culture of unaccountability. “The next director of the Secret Service should be a strong leader from outside the agency who has a protective, law enforcement, or military background and who can drive cultural change in the organization and move the Secret Service forward into a new era: The need to change, reinvigorate, and question long-held assumptions-from within the agency itself-is too critical now for the next director to be an insider,” the report states.

The new director must “must build a new budget from the ground up by defining its mission, determining what it will take to achieve it, and asking for that,” rather than working off what it believes it can get through the budget process. The panel says new steps must be taken to ensure that agency leadership and managers are open to suggestions and criticism of department practices by agents and officers in the field, and to ensure that the Secret Services’ disciplinary processes are followed and enforced in a fair and consistent fashion.

TIME Crime

White House Fence Jumper Found Mentally Fit to Stand Trial

New River Regional Jail booking photo of Omar Gonzalez
Handout—Reuters Alleged White House fence jumper Omar Gonzalez, 42, is shown in this New River Regional Jail booking photo released on September 23, 2014.

The jumper successfully reached the Executive Mansion and ran through multiple rooms, leading to the Secret Service director's resignation and prompting a huge security review within the storied agency

A U.S. Army veteran accused of jumping the White House fence and racing into the executive mansion in September has been found competent to stand trial.

Omar J. Gonzalez, who served in Iraq, was indicted Sept. 30 and again on Oct. 16. on multiple charges, including federal counts, the Washington Post reports. A judge had ordered a mental health evaluation for him in October.

Gonzalez is accused of climbing the north fence at the White House on Sept. 19 and dashing into the mansion, where he ran through several rooms before being apprehended by the Secret Service. Authorities found a folding knife in his pocket, as well as a machete, two hatchets and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car.

[The Washington Post]

TIME Congress

Acting Secret Service Director ‘Confident’ He Can Restore Faith in Agency

Joseph Clancy
Susan Walsh—AP Acting Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy testifies on Capitol Hill

Joseph Clancy addressed the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, noting the failures that have led to public mistrust in the agency

Acting Director of the Secret Service Joseph Clancy told lawmakers on Wednesday he’s “confident” he can restore the American public’s faith in the agency, in the wake of high-profile security breaches that put the President and First Family in danger.

“We are confident we can fulfill our mission with honor, and restore the secret service’s rightful place as the most respected protection service in the world,” Clancy said Wednesday in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

It has been a little over a month since Clancy took the reigns at the Secret Service, after previous director Julia Pierson stepped down after the public found out that an army veteran named Omar Gonzales had been able to reach the East Room of the White House after jumping a fence and running inside.

Clancy acknowledged the failures of the agency in recent months, saying he is working to adjust training and morale within an agency he notes is stretched thin. He also addressed the Sept. 19 fence jumping, calling it “devastating.”

“What hits me hardest is the range of shortcomings that ultimately allowed Omar Gonzalez to enter the White House practically unencumbered,” he said.

The Washington Post reports Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who will serve as the next chairman of the House Oversight committee, grilled Clancy on whether or not anyone had been punished for misleading the public on when the fence jumper was detained in early reports.

“We’ve cited at least two, I believe three, incidents when the public was misinformed,” Chaffetz reportedly said. “The Secret Service misled us on purpose.”

TIME Government

Report Details Secret Service Mishaps in White House Breach

White House at midday
Allan Baxter—Getty Images White House at midday

One of several blunders, according to a Homeland Security report

An intruder was able to climb the White House fence and enter the premises in September because of a number of mishaps, like faulty alarm systems and officers not even spotting him, according to a summary of a Homeland Security report Thursday.

Members of Congress were briefed on the report Thursday, according to the New York Times, which obtained its executive summary. The report is said to detail the security lapses that allowed Omar Gonzalez, who is charged in the Sept. 19 breach, to enter the White House. Among them, an officer who was stationed with an attack dog on the North Lawn was busy talking on a personal cell phone in a van and had not seen the man climb the fence.

Julia Pierson, who was the Secret Service director at the time of the incident, later resigned.

Read more at the New York Times

TIME politics

It Shouldn’t Take Another Tragedy To Reform the Secret Service

US-POLITICS-SECURITY-WHITE HOUSE
MANDEL NGAN—AFP/Getty Images A member of Secret Service walks on the North Lawn of the White Houes on October 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. US President Barack Obama has appointed former Presidential Protective Division (PPD) director Joe Clancy as interim head of the Secret Service a day after Julia Pierson stepped down from the post.

Ronald Kessler is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

The latest incident underscores how important it is to overhaul the Secret Service and its management culture that fosters cutting corners

At least a dozen times a year, intruders try to jump the White House fence. Many of them succeed. Until Omar Gonzalez penetrated the White House itself, the Secret Service had stopped the intruders before they got inside, as the Secret Service admirably did on Wednesday evening when a Uniformed Division dog took down a fence jumper.

But this recent incident spotlights how foolish it is to keep the White House fence where it is. Many will argue that moving the perimeter to Lafayette Park and closing off access to the public along Pennsylvania Avenue somehow shuts down access to the president. But no one has access to the president without an appointment and being cleared by the Secret Service. The public sees the president almost every day on television. The idea that our rights will somehow be impinged upon by making the White House safer is a myth.

However, the latest incident underscores how important it is to overhaul the Secret Service and its management culture that fosters cutting corners. A report issued this week by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General brings that into vivid focus. The report describes how Secret Service management as part of Operation Moonlight diverted agents on the so-called Prowler team from protecting President Obama at the White House to instead protecting Lisa Chopey, the assistant to then Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, at her home in southern Maryland.

As first reported in my book The First Family Detail, the agents who were diverted to protect Chopey also retrieved confidential law enforcement records on Chopey’s neighbor who had allegedly harassed her. But neither the Secret Service nor the FBI has the authority to protect its own employees. Only when a federal law enforcement officer is threatened or retaliated against as a result of an investigation does such action become a federal offense. As a support employee, Chopey is not a law enforcement officer and was not engaged in an investigation. Thus, retrieving 13 pages of records on the neighbor violated federal criminal laws because the agents had no legitimate law enforcement authority to conduct an investigation of this nature (a point the DHS report failed to note).

Also left unsaid in the DHS report was that one of the purposes of the Prowler team is to look for possible snipers as Marine One lifts off with the president from the White House grounds. On July 1, 2011, Obama and his family left in the helicopter in the late afternoon to go to Camp David, but the Prowler team was nowhere to be found. Instead, the team had been diverted to protect Chopey in southern Maryland.

As if that is not shocking enough, the DHS report quotes Secret Service management and former director Sullivan as defending the decision to divert agents from protecting the president. They claimed the diversion did not impinge on the president’s safety. That, along with the comment by former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson that Secret Service uniformed officers exercised “tremendous restraint” in not taking out Gonzalez even though he penetrated the White House, pinpoints both the arrogance and the negligence of the Secret Service today.

The Secret Service agents involved in Operation Moonlight were fully aware that they were breaking the law, but they felt that their jobs were on the line, a Secret Service agent who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals told me for the book. The agents “obtained all this information illegally and kept it and were told not to talk about it outside the squad,” the agent says. “They kept records at the duty desk and made agents on every shift initial that they had gone all the way out to southern Maryland to check on the woman’s welfare on the taxpayer dollar.”

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has appointed a four-person panel to recommend security improvements at the White House and to suggest a new director. One development the panel should explore are so-called non-lethal weapons such as ear-splitting sound and high-energy beams that are used to protect our nuclear facilities. And the panel should recommend an outside director such as a former FBI official to change the management culture that encourages cover-ups and brazenly defends the indefensible.

This time, the Secret Service succeeded in apprehending a fence jumper. The next time, it may not. It took the assassination of President Kennedy to substantially upgrade the Secret Service the last time. It should not take another tragedy to reform the Secret Service now.

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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