We Can’t Let Politics Trump Security

Bobby Thompson was welcomed into the Oval Office in October 2008 using a stolen ID and while being wanted by the FBI.

If there is one thing we should admit as a nation, it’s that we are weakening from our wounds.

America has suffered cuts before. But this week, Lady Liberty had a wound ripped into a seeping gash.  And this time, there is no way to hide the injury or rationally believe the wound can heal itself. The very attack on the capitol that caused the damage demonstrates why we need triage, fast.

We have drifted so far apart as a nation that a sizable minority of Americans believe Wednesday’s invasion was staged by imposters meant to impune the conservative right. They remain convinced despite copious video footage (that had been streamed live) and an Internet trail detailing maruaders’ vows to “take the country back.”  A wound constantly pulled apart can never heal.

The only similarity both sides share seems to be in questioning how this happened: Why were the Capitol Police not better prepared? Why was there not a call for backup sooner? And even though it may not be mentioned as often, there remains the all important question of could this happen again?

That’s the question that frightens me the most. I have spent much of the last decade studying the greatest breach in White House history and the mastermind behind it. Its an obsession that started when I was a senior investigator for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office assigned to what was the office’s largest fraud case ever; my intrigue grew over eight years of research and analysis which ultimately led to a book.

And its clear that the attack on the capitol shares the same foreboding warning unless we agree to collectively get answers.  Let me explain why.

In 2008, a man by the name of Lt. Commander Bobby Thompson was welcomed into the Oval Office along with other major political donors, for a gathering with President George W. Bush.  The reception was a private soiree not even noted in the President’s daily log. The event could have remained a secret if the commander hadn’t grown more brazen in time.

Commander Thompson was the face of the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a nationwide charity for veterans that touted itself as the best value for donors because they are run by volunteers and use the funds as direct aid.  The pitch worked. The charity collected more than $100 million in the first decade of this century. A crack about the association’s claims only appeared after a Florida reporter noticed the charity had made an illegal political donation.

Instead of contrition for the illegality, the commander waged a war on the newspaper while the reporter discovered that not only was the commander an imposter, the charitable association was a complete sham as well. Veterans received the equivalent of pennies.

Attorney generals from all over the country scrambled to figure out how they not only allowed, but approved a facade to collect in their state. As they did, the commander disappeared. He left behind a mountain of paperwork from detailing the scam, but nothing hinting at who the commander really was or where he could be headed.

And states struggled in vain to solve those mysteries. The case was so complex, investigators were betting the commander would never be caught.  They lost the bet when a task force assembled by the U.S. Marshals became hellbent on putting the fake commander behind bars.

It was only after the commander was arrested that U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott was able to figure out who this culprit really was. The commander’s real name was John Donald Cody – a former military spy who was also wanted by the FBI.  Elliott found Cody’s wanted posted attached to a story about the largest white-collar criminals at large; the bureau was offering $50,000 for his arrest, saying that in addition to be a charged suspect in several frauds, Cody was also wanted in connection with questioning on espionage.

After his identity was exposed, Cody claimed the charity was orchestrated by the CIA; and he claimed his work with the CIA started in the 1970s when he was a military spy.  Prosecutors dismissed the claims and convicted Cody to 28 years in prison – a veritable life term for a man who was already in his 60s.

From what American’s could see, Cody’s case revealed the most significant breach in White House history — a man who used a stolen ID and wanted in questioning for espionage had been allowed in the Oval Office.

The U.S. Secret Service never commented on the breach and went so far as to conceal it later. Just two weeks before Cody was arrested in 2012, it became public that the agency had an internal investigation concerning agents allowing prostitutes in their room while they prepared for a presidential visit.  And Congress quickly demanded answers; what other breaches exist legislators wanted to know.

When the report was issued three years later, no one noticed that Cody’s breach hadn’t been included. The Secret Service did share other previously unknown incidents, but all paled in comparison to someone wanted for questioning in espionage using a stolen ID to get into the White House.

Details of what happened in Cody’s case have remained so secret that investigators into his nationwide scam were never provided any requested evidence from the visit. The agency’s silence left the fraud investigators to surmise this case was evidence of how politics can trump security. Based on their limited information, investigators believed agents at the White House must have been given a directive along the lines of: the President has significant donors he has invited to the White House; let me know when you have approved their visit.

I believe the Oval Office breach is analogous to Wednesday’s assault as both expose weaknesses in the security of the greatest democracy in the world.

Others may disagree, rationalizing we have learned from our mistakes. We wouldn’t let the same thing happen again. But it took nearly 3,000 people dying on Sept. 11, 2001, before we realized our mistake in ignoring Osama bin Laden’s threats.

We owe it those who gave their lives protecting this great democracy and our children’s children. We cannot discover a potentially fatal flaw as with the White House breach and capitol assault and then look the other way.

Our adversaries now have a playbook showing how easily the White House and Congress can – and have – been breached.

How much more should we give up before we insist on answers?