Security Cracks at the White House: Critics Express Concern That an Access-Control System Built in the Final Months of the Clinton Administration Leaves the White House Vulnerable to Security Threats. (Special Report)

Article excerpt

One year after the Sept. 11 attacks the national focus still is on homeland security. From local banks to city halls, officials frantically are working to make American institutions less vulnerable to terrorist attack. Many assumed the hardening for homeland security began at the White House. That, after all, is where the president resides and meets with his top advisers, so visitors who come and go must be the most closely scrutinized in Washington.

But INSIGHT has learned this may not be the case because of a new computerized access-control system put in place by the U.S. Secret Service--which still is headed by a director appointed by Bill Clinton--right after the Bush administration took office. Largely built in the final months of the Clinton administration, the system was advertised by its proponents as being quicker and more accurate than previous systems the Secret Service had relied on to clear visitors into the White House. But sources familiar with the way it has operated tell INSIGHT that not only was the system never adequately tested, but it frequently breaks down and delivers inaccurate data about White House employees and guests.

National-security concerns also have been raised concerning the ownership of the lead contractor on the system, a company called Ultrak Inc. After Ultrak's stock price tanked to around $1 last year, controlling interest in the Lewisville, Texas, company was acquired by Niklaus Zenger, a resident of Switzerland. Zenger, now Ultrak's new chief executive officer (CEO), also has ties to the Russian government, leading some security experts to worry about what now is a foreign-owned company having gained access to highly sensitive data concerning every aspect of who goes in and out of the White House and when.

Critics of the system spoke to INSIGHT with reluctance. All have tremendous respect for the Secret Service and the courageous agents who put their lives on the line to protect the president and the country. But, as one critic put it, "The new access-control system potentially poses, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, a threat to those whom it is intended to help protect: the president, vice president, government employees and Secret Service officers who are charged with the physical protection of the White House complex and its occupants."

Checking carefully, INSIGHT interviewed current and former Secret Service employees and others familiar with the access-control system and obtained documents that reiterated many of the concerns expressed.

Most were deeply concerned but asked to remain anonymous. One of those who did speak for the record is Bill Castle, a Secret Service officer involved in protecting presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. Castle became a consultant to the Secret Service on information-technology programs after he retired in 1996. He tells INSIGHT the system was rushed into operation and that there were problems immediately after it was installed in April 2001.

"It wouldn't pull up names of people with White House passes as fast as the old system," Castle says. "The older system would get it in five seconds, and the new system took more than 20 seconds" per name. He says this made the processing of long lines of White House guests much slower.

More importantly, Castle says, the system frequently failed to give accurate information about White House employees, the press corps and others with temporary or permanent passes to enter the White House. "The ladies in the [Secret Service's] pass-clerks office were really concerned that they couldn't get the hard-copy reports on which passes were active and which had expired, who should have access to the White House and who shouldn't," he says.

Castle left the Secret Service in the fall of 2001. According to sources with knowledge of how the system currently functions, it usually doesn't take as long to process White House visitors through a line. …