President Obama was not told of the lapse in his security during his trip. Director Julia Pierson, according to two people familiar with the incident, took steps to have the matter reviewed internally and did not refer it to an investigative unit that reviews violations of protocol and standard.
The incident, which rattled Secret Service agents assigned to the president’s detail, occurred as Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis.
The private contractor aroused the agents’ concerns when he did not comply with their orders that he stop using a phone camera to videotape the president in the elevator, according to the people familiar with the incident. The man was also acted oddly, the people said.
Agents questioned the man when they exited the elevator and then used a national database check to learn of his criminal history.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who first heard of the breakdown from a whistleblower, said he was appalled at the incident. The Washington Post confirmed details of the event with 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.”
It is the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Secret Service, whose director, Pierson, drew criticism Tuesday from lawmakers in both parties during a combative hearing that focused on her agency’s security lapses. The hearing focused on a man who was able to foil Secret Service officers by jumping the White House fence Sept. 19 and also a 2011 shooting at the residence that the Secret Service failed to identify and properly investigate.
The elevator incident exposed another serious breakdown in the Secret Service’s safety protocols: this one meant to keep the president safe from strangers when he travels to events outside the White House. In close quarters or small events, when the president is on the road, all of the people who could have access to him must be checked in advance for weapons and any criminal history.
In response to a question at the hearing Tuesday, Pierson said she briefs the president “100 percent of the time” when his personal security has been breached. However, she said Tuesday that has only happened one time this year: Soon after Omar Gonzalez jumped over the White House fence Sept. 19 and was able to burst into the mansion.
A Secret Service spokesman said the agency would provide a response soon.
Some elements of the Atlanta incident were first reported Tuesday afternoon on the Washington Examiner’s Web site.
Under a security program called the Arm’s Reach Program, Secret Service advance staff run potential staff, contractors, hotel employees, invited guests and volunteers through several databases, including a national criminal information registry, and records kept by the CIA, NSA and Department of Defense, 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 they meet the safety standards because of their employment. But private security contractors would be checked, two former agents who worked on advance planning for presidential trips said.