The revelations that people got beyond the White House fence, and one got further into the White House than officially revealed, has now been coupled with yet another revelation that calls into serious question the efficacy of today’s Secret Service and the competence of its current leadership. The latest twist: a contractor armed with a gun was allowed to get into an elevator with President Barack Obama.
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You almost have to say that twice to absorb it: a contractor armed with a gun was allowed to get into an elevator with President Barack Obama.
This latest revelation is so stunning in light of the history of assassinations in this country and the fact that typical nutcases are now joined by terrorists who want to take out the President that it’s almost difficult to grasp. What is easy to grasp is that for whatever combination of reasons and bad luck, the Secret Service seems to have lost its grasp and if its protocols — and perhaps leadership — don’t change, it is poised to lose a President in coming decades. The latest details:
A security contractor with a gun and three convictions for assault and battery was allowed on an elevator with President Obama during a Sept. 16 trip to Atlanta, violating Secret Service protocols, according to three people familiar with the incident.
Obama was not told about the lapse in his security, these people said. The Secret Service director, Julia Pierson, asked a top agency manager to look into the matter but did not refer it to an investigative unit that was created to review violations of protocol and standards, according to two people familiar with the handling of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The incident, which took place when Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, rattled Secret Service agents assigned to the president’s protective detail.
The private contractor first aroused the agents’ concerns when he acted oddly and did not comply with their orders to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator, according to the people familiar with the incident.
When the elevator opened, Obama left with most of his Secret Service detail. Some agents stayed behind to question the man and then used a national database check that turned up his criminal history.
And the incident of the man who got into the building gets scarier when it’s clear he was stopped not by the agents on duty, but one who had just gone off duty:
The man who jumped over the White House fence and sprinted through the main floor of the mansion could have gotten even farther had it not been for an off-duty Secret Service agent who was coincidentally in the house and leaving for the night.
The agent who finally tackled Omar Gonzalez had been serving on the security detail for President Obama’s daughters and had just seen the family depart via helicopter minutes earlier. He happened to be walking through the house when chaos broke out and the intruder dashed through the main foyer, according to two people familiar with the incident.
Gonzalez, 42, was the first person in modern memory to jump over the White House fence and get into the mansion, largely the result of a failure of numerous layers of Secret Service security on the northern fence line.
Though the Secret Service initially said that Gonzalez was quickly detained inside the front door, The Washington Post reported Monday that the man actually made it well into the house before he was tackled on the far southern side of the 80-foot-long East Room. Once he burst inside the unlocked front door, Gonzalez, an Army veteran, overpowered one Secret Service officer and, on his journey, sprinted past a stairway that leads up half a flight to the first family’s living quarters.
The additional information about the incident came as Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was being grilled on Capitol Hill about the Gonzalez incident and other security lapses revealed in Washington Post stories in recent days. The Post on Sunday detailed the agency’s fumbling response to a November 2011 shooting, in which a man fired a semiautomatic rifle into the White House residence while Sasha Obama was home, but the Secret Service discounted the gunshots on Constitution Avenue as a shoot-out between rival gangsters.
How serious is this? Very. Ronald Kessler, writing in Politico magazine, offers some reporting that chronicles how security professionals find the current situation almost humorous — if it wasn’t so deadly serious and threatening:
Behind the rotten culture is arrogance. After uniformed officers failed to take out 42-year-old Omar J. Gonzalez when he hopped over the fence and ran into the White House, the Secret Service issued a statement saying the officers “showed restraint.” The statement provoked laughter among senior FBI officials. But in its arrogance, the Secret Service thought it could get away with issuing such an outrageous claim and the public would accept it.
With similar hubris, the agency leaves the doors to the White Horse unlocked. The idea is that the vaunted Secret Service can handle any problem and can waive the most basic security precautions to make things easier for White House staff to move in and out of the building.
On a regular basis, to appease White House or campaign staffs, Secret Service officials order agents to ignore basic security rules and let people into events without being put through a magnetometer or metal detector. That’s like letting passengers into a commercial airliner without metal detection screening. Terrorist groups like ISIL would like nothing better than to assassinate Obama. Five terrorists could come into the White House with grenades and wipe him out.
Director Pierson’s performance at a House hearing Tuesday only confirmed that she is not the right person for the job. Asked about the uniformed officer who was told to stand down when she reported gunshots at the White House, Pierson said she would look into it. Like the rest of the agency’s career employees, Pierson, who was previously chief of staff to Director Mark Sullivan, knows that the real problem is a management culture that requires covering up possible threats and deficiencies. And yet, according to current agents I have interviewed, she has not only perpetuated that culture but has made it worse.
Kessler, who wrote a book on the Secret Service, says agents tell him “it’s a miracle an assassination has not already occurred. Sadly, given Obama’s colossal lack of management judgment, that calamity may be the only catalyst that will reform the Secret Service.”
Some of his piece may be dismissed as anti-Obama by some, but the blunt reality is that if terrorists got through the White House they most assuredly are unlikely to limit their target to the President. If Obama’s wife and daughters are in the vicinity, there could be a national tragedy with a Presidential family unmatched in American history.
It’s hard to know for sure exactly what’s going on with the Secret Service, but it’s obvious that there’s something going wrong. In just the last several years, we’ve seen two gate crashers make it into a State Dinner without an invitation or having been cleared by the agency in advance, a number of agents involved in encounters with prostitutes in Colombia, and apparently, at least one incident in which an agent who was supposed to be on duty outside of the President’s hotel room on a trip falling asleep on the job, Add into that the numerous fence jumpers that we have had just in the past year, all of which have been apprehended before getting anywhere close to the building until Mr. Gonzalez, and it’s beginning to look like a serious lapse in security by an agency that is supposed to be the best trained security team in the world. There have been some suggestions that the agency has experienced budgetary issues in recent years, but the only apparent impact that has had has been to delay the start of a couple groups of academy candidates; there’s been no real suggestion that it has any impact on training or readiness of agents that are on duty. Another suggestion is that the culture of the agency has changed since it was moved from the Treasury Department, where it had been since its founding, to the Department of Homeland Security. One problem with that hypothesis, though, is that the transfer of authority happened in 2003 and its only been in the last four years or so that these security lapses have become apparent. It’s possible, of course, that there were incidents before 2010 that we’re not aware of, but right now it doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence that DHS supervision is impacting the agency. All of that suggests, then, that this may well be a failure of leadership and that people like Pierson may need to go and be replaced with people better able to lead the agency. Whatever the reason, though, this is obviously something we ought to get to the bottom of to sooner rather than later.
Whatever it is, the Secret Service is starting to look like these guys: