Richmond, Virginia, Oct 19: At least no one left the keys to Air Force One in the ignition.
In an egg-on-face moment for the government ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Virginia, someone stole a Pentagon truck containing $200,000 worth of presidential seals, podiums and sound equipment from outside a suburban hotel Monday, Richmond TV stations reported, citing unidentified police sources.
Authorities found the truck later in the day at another hotel near the Richmond airport, according to the news reports. But no one would say whether the items inside had been located. No arrests were reported.
Whether the thieves knew what they were stealing—or whether they got that what-have-we-done-now feeling when they opened the unmarked box truck—is unclear as well.
Will any of the gear end up on eBay? Or is there a guy somewhere amusing himself by holding mock presidential news conferences in his basement?
The White House and police in Henrico County would not discuss details of the heist, such as whether the thieves hot-wired the truck or found the keys in the ignition. And the Secret Service said it's not the agency's problem. “Not our equipment, not our truck,” spokesman Ed Donovan said.
The Defense Information Systems Agency, the Pentagon unit that owns the vehicle, said no classified or sensitive information was in it. But the agency had little else to say.
“We take incidents such as this very seriously,” it said in a three-sentence statement, adding that an investigation is continuing.
Christopher Falkenberg, a former Secret Service agent who now heads a security company, said the agency responsible for the truck secures everything from a variety of lecterns used by the president—the big wooden one nicknamed the “Blue Goose” and a variety of smaller ones—to “incredibly sensitive information.”
But Falkenberg said the thefts probably won't be a problem.
“It's not as though the nuclear codes are likely to be lost. And if they are lost, you change the codes,” Falkenberg said.
WWBT-TV reported that the truck was parked at the Courtyard Marriott in suburban Henrico County when it was stolen. Obama is expected to push his jobs plan Wednesday at a fire station about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. It's part of his three-day bus tour of Virginia and North Carolina.
Despite the setback, about 20 workers rushed about the Chesterfield Fire Department Station 9, setting up the stage, lights and yes, even a lectern, said Lt. Jason Elmore, department spokesman. The lectern was wrapped in cloth, so Elmore couldn't tell if it had the official presidential seal.
Even if Obama doesn't get his official gear back, Elmore said, it won't dampen the presidential visit.
“We'll do the best we can with what we have here if they need that,” he said. “Hopefully they'll be able to find their official stuff.”
David Johnson, a security consultant, said he wasn't surprised by the theft.
“Crime happens. I don't guess anyone is immune from it,” said Johnson, who provided security to former Haitian presidents and U.S. ambassadors. “To me, it falls in the category of sometimes things happen.”
Johnson said it would be impossible to guard the president's entire entourage.
“I think most people have no idea how big a train the president pulls when he travels. It's a huge, huge train, and there's an enormous expenditure on the transportation and the security of the president,” he said. Guarding all of it could prove so expensive the public “would just be screaming.”
Dennis Lormel, a retired FBI agent, said it's important to determine whether the thefts were a prank or something more threatening.
“Any time there's a theft that close to the president, you have to take it seriously,” he said. “The issue is what was the purpose of the theft? Was it some kids out for fun, or was it more malicious?”