Despite good intentions, heavy police presence and the recent embarrassment about White House party crashers, there was at least one weak link in the security chain around Gov. Bob McDonnell during inaugural weekend.
This reporter inadvertently walked right through it.
About a half-hour after the black-tie inaugural ball kicked off at the Greater Richmond Convention Center at 8 p.m. Saturday, I walked from the sidewalk outside the center and into a private room that held McDonnell, his wife, their family, friends and other dignitaries — without anyone asking for my name or identification or checking me with a metal detector.
Inside, McDonnell was in the midst of offering post-dinner introductions, remarks and thanks to his guests, which included U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, former Gov. Jim Gilmore and former Lieutenant Gov. John Hager and his wife, the in-laws to President George W. Bush's daughter Jenna.
The inner circle of security around McDonnell and his family is the domain of the Virginia State Police Executive Protection Unit. Beyond that, security for inaugural events was handled by Virginia State Capitol Police and Virginia State Police.
I mingled in a room that held about 150 family members and friends. A closed-circuit television offered a glimpse of some 4,000 expected guests upstairs, many of them grooving to the band Amaretto.
Close to 9 p.m., a visibly surprised Taylor Thornley, McDonnell's deputy director of communications, approached me, saying hello. We had met in person once, when she sat in during an interview I conducted with McDonnell for a Style Weekly cover story during the gubernatorial campaign. “This is closed to press,” she said of the dinner.
I let her know that I'd been let into the room, and asked to stay because the event had ended — and perhaps to accompany the group upstairs for behind-the-scenes tour while McDonnell prepared to make his grand entrance at the ball. Thornley said she wasn't sure how I was allowed in and that she had to be fair to other reporters. And so I left, heading upstairs for the party.
It was a curious moment during a weekend of heavily protected inaugural events, but a reminder that no security system is fail-safe, even post-9/11. The Christmas Day attack on an airline to Detroit by a man with a bomb in his underwear, which failed no thanks to government systems, serves as a recent example. And that's not to mention the White House state dinner breach by three uninvited guests.
Unlike the party-crashers' case, I was authorized to attend inaugural events. At the ball I wore my press credential, one of many issued Friday to various members of news media, whose representatives had to pick up in person, show ID and sign out.
Even with that credential, however, reporters entering the ball at other entrances were required to be screened. Security seemed tight. Arriving separately, another Style writer and a photographer had to pass through metal detectors; one was asked to turn a cell phone off and then back on.
Earlier that day during the swearing-in ceremony at the State Capitol, I was asked to show identification at an entrance in addition to my press badge. Security officials also used a hand-wand-style metal detector to scan me each time I entered the gates. Security was visible everywhere, including snipers on the Capitol roof.
Perhaps this was a case of being lumped in with people who were allowed to be at the private dinner. On my way to the ball, I crossed Broad Street between the Richmond Marriott and the convention center. A group of people fell in behind me, coming from the Hilton Garden Inn. At the first entrance I came upon, a police officer was holding a door open. “Is this where we go in?” I asked, as I walked through the door, followed by the others (they were heading to the dinner and weren't screened by security).
I saw no check-in, and looked around for direction. Just ahead, a man at the door to Room B-15 told us the governor was giving remarks. “He's on the first floor?” I asked. Yes, he replied, and had us briefly wait before opening the doors to the room.
My press credential was visible, but it certainly could have been given to anyone — or picked up by anyone had it been lost. I stood off to the side with a pad and pen, taking notes on the scene.
“We're reviewing the situation,” Stacey Johnson, press secretary to the governor, says Monday. She knew of no security incidents during inaugural weekend, and commended the work of security officials.