Secure the people’s house
WASHINGTON — Put a taller fence around the White House complex and lock the doors.
Then get rid of the dry rot in the Secret Service bureaucracy, restore staffing to reasonable levels, adopt the latest technology and develop new protocols to replace the ones that didn’t work. But don’t use the recent shocking lapses in presidential security as an excuse to further separate Americans from the symbols of their government.
Actually, “shocking” is an understatement. I still can’t get my mind around the fact a man could climb over the White House fence, run across the North Lawn, barge through the main entrance and make it all the way down the hallway to the ceremonial East Room before being stopped. Minutes earlier, fortunately, President Obama and his family had departed the premises by helicopter.
Prosecutors identified the man as 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez, and officials say he was tackled by an off-duty agent who happened to be nearby and noticed the commotion. According to reports by The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig — who has owned this story — five rings of security should have kept the man from reaching the front door. Each failed.
This debacle alone should be enough to trigger a shakeup in the Secret Service. But we also know, thanks to Leonnig’s reporting, that the agency botched its investigation of a 2011 shooting incident, failing to realize that bullets fired from outside the grounds actually struck the mansion until days later when a housekeeper noticed broken glass. And just weeks ago in Atlanta, agents allowed a security guard with a gun and a criminal record to ride an elevator with Obama.
Former Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was less than forthcoming about all of these potential disasters when she testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill. She tried the old Nixon-era “modified limited hangout” strategy with a panel of stern-faced lawmakers, whose outrage was a rare show of bipartisan consensus, and her resignation a day later was inevitable. That’s a first step.
Pierson’s successor is Joseph Clancy, a respected Secret Service veteran who agreed to come out of retirement, on an interim basis, to right the ship. Let me offer some advice.
Begin with the obvious: This case showed the world that the White House is vulnerable. Think of all the people who might want to harm the president of the United States or deface a building that symbolizes our democracy. Imagine what might have happened if there had been a half-dozen intruders coming over the fence simultaneously.
The wrought-iron fence in front of the White House is only 7 feet 6 inches high. It should be replaced with a new fence around the whole complex — I’m including the Treasury and Old Executive Office buildings on either side — that is similar but considerably higher. There’s no need for concertina wire or anything like that, just pointed finials on top.
The new barrier could easily be designed to deny would-be climbers the footholds and handholds necessary to make it over. But it should be an elegant, black, wrought-iron fence with enough space between the bars to retain a feeling of access and openness — the sense that this is, truly, the people’s house. Setting up pedestrian checkpoints to cordon off the whole area would be a tragic and needless surrender.
Also, and it seems ridiculous to have to say this, the front door of the White House should be locked. At all times. Even if all the locking and unlocking is inconvenient for those who live and work there.
According to the Secret Service manual, the door should have been locked as soon as someone got over the fence. But this is hardly the only protocol that broke down. A dog trained to knock down and hold an intruder was not released because the handler feared the dog might attack Secret Service agents who were running around the grounds. Either the plan is dumb or agents are not properly trained to carry it out.
Funding for the agency has been so neglected by the Obama administration that Republicans — (BEG ITAL)Republicans!(END ITAL) — insisted on adding money to the budget. Complacent management has done a disservice to the brave agents who put their lives on the line every day.
The off-duty hero who tackled the intruder had no idea whether he was carrying a vial of anthrax or sarin gas. The agent just did the job he is sworn to do. Unlike his bosses.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected] (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group