When to shoot: Why the Secret Service is in hot water

The Secret Service is in trouble for the recent White House fence jumper. More troubling, the Washington Post reports, is a 2011 incident when shots hit the presidential family residence. Congress holds a special hearing this week.

Evan Vucci/AP
Secret Service police officers walk outside the White House after an intruder jumped the fence and escaped capture until he was inside the North Portico entrance of the presidential mansion.

When members of Congress tear into the US Secret Service at a hearing this week, it will have been prompted by the recent incident involving a White House fence-jumper who made it inside the front door of the president’s residence and principal place of business.

As it turned out, Omar Gonzalez was a troubled Iraq war vet and not a terrorist. His only weapon when officers tackled him just inside a White House entrance was a small knife in his pocket. And yet his vehicle held a small arsenal – semi-automatic weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition – plus a map of Washington with a circle around the White House grounds.

More troubling for lawmakers and other critics of such security lapses is a recently-revealed incident on Nov. 11, 2011 when at least seven shots from a high-powered rifle were fired at the White House, breaking windows and causing other damage near the upstairs residence.

As reported in the Washington Post Saturday night, there were “a string of security lapses, never previously reported, as the Secret Service failed to identify and properly investigate a serious attack on the White House.”

President Obama and his wife were out of town at the time, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother were inside, while older daughter Malia was just returning from an outing with friends.

The Washington Post reports this initial scene:

“Secret Service officers initially rushed to respond. One, stationed directly under the second-floor terrace where the bullets struck, drew her .357 handgun and prepared to crack open an emergency gun box. Snipers on the roof, standing just 20 feet from where one bullet struck, scanned the South Lawn through their rifle scopes for signs of an attack. With little camera surveillance on the White House perimeter, it was up to the Secret Service officers on duty to figure out what was going on.

“Then came an order that surprised some of the officers. “No shots have been fired. . . . Stand down,” a supervisor called over his radio. He said the noise was the backfire from a nearby construction vehicle.”

That shots had been fired in the vicinity of the White House was confirmed later that night, but the assumption was that it had been between rival gangs. Evidence that the White House had been targeted was not confirmed until a housekeeper noticed the damage.

More troubling, according to this report, officers who thought gunfire had hit the house were largely ignored, and “some were afraid to dispute their bosses’ conclusions.” There was no more than a cursory inspection and key witnesses were not interviewed.

In the more recent fence-jumper incident, two things might have prevented the intruder from reaching the White House entrance: Snipers on the White House roof could have shot him, or a dog handler could have unleashed the Belgian Malinois trained to knock down and hold a target individual.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson – appointed by President Obama last year after a 2012 scandal when agents in Colombia were disciplined for soliciting prostitutes – immediately ordered increased surveillance and more officer patrols of White House grounds, as well as a full investigation of the incident.

The Post report on the 2011 shooting, based on interviews with agents and investigators, documents, and radio recordings, concludes that “the episode exposed problems at multiple levels of the Secret Service, and it demonstrates that an organization long seen by Americans as an elite force of selfless and highly skilled patriots – willing to take a bullet for the good of the country – is not always up to its job.”

That’s exactly what lawmakers want to probe during their special hearing Tuesday.

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