White House fence jumper: How badly did the Secret Service mess up?

After fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez made it inside the White House before being arrested, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduling a rare recess hearing next Tuesday on the Secret Service and its practices.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
A uniformed Secret Service officer (L) is seen at a post in front of the White House in Washington Tuesday. A new, lower, portable fence is seen on the sidewalk. A decorated Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzalez, scaled the higher permanent fence (rear) on Friday night and got into the White House. Gonzalez had more than 800 rounds of ammunition in his car and had been arrested in July with a sniper rifle and a map on which the executive mansion was marked, a federal prosecutor said.

Did the Secret Service mess up in the White House fence-jumping incident of last Friday, and if so, how badly?

That’s a big issue in Washington this week as more details emerge about the incident and Omar Gonzalez, the military veteran who ran across the White House lawn and made it inside the mansion’s door before agents subdued him.

Concern about this security breach has caused the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to schedule a rare recess hearing next Tuesday on the Secret Service and its practices. The committee has invited Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to testify.

Among the questions sure to arise: Why wasn’t the White House front door locked? Why didn’t the uniformed Secret Service agents on the grounds unleash their trained defense dogs, or fire at Mr. Gonzalez before he reached the White House threshold?

Had the Secret Service heard about Gonzalez beforehand? After all, he’d been arrested in rural Virginia on July 19 for erratic driving. In his vehicle, law-enforcement officials found three rifles and two handguns, ammunition, and a map of Washington with a circle around the White House grounds.

President Obama has said he has “complete confidence” in the men and women who protect the executive mansion. Not everyone shares this assessment.

“Despite all that positive talk, it appears something is very, very wrong with the Secret Service,” writes right-leaning columnist Byron York at the Washington Examiner.

It was human error and not a too-small buffer zone design that allowed Gonzalez to get as far as he did, according to Mr. York.

Yet the initial reaction from the Secret Service has been to erect a new barrier about 10 feet out from the current fence. Officials have floated the idea of restricting pedestrian access along Pennsylvania Avenue, perhaps via checkpoints to inspect people’s bags and purses.

Initial reaction to this among residents and downtown workers has been negative, across the political spectrum.

“The Secret Service is preparing to punish the public for the agency’s mistakes,” writes the leftish-leaning Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.

It’s natural for the agency charged with protecting the president to want to create an ever-larger no-go zone, adds the conservative National Review. But that would turn a big chunk of downtown Washington into a Kremlin-like fortress.

“The president must not simply defer to the Secret Service; that organization’s security imperative must be counterbalanced by the need for openness in what is, at least for now, still a democratic republic,” writes the Review’s Mark Krikorian.

Budget cuts may have contributed to current problems, creating a Secret Service staffing shortage that has lessened morale and increased fatigue.

Ron Kessler, author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents” says that many individual agents are dedicated, but the agency’s management culture condones cutting corners.

Under pressure from presidential and political staffers, agents sometimes wave people into events without adequate screening, according Mr. Kessler. In 2009, gate-crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi made it into a White House state dinner for the Prime Minister of India.

“No congressional hearings or internal reviews are going to fix the agency. Only an outside director with a fresh perspective . . . would be capable of reforming Secret Service management,” Kessler writes in Time Magazine.

Ms. Pierson says she has already ordered a full investigation into the Gonzalez incident, including a determination of what mistakes were made, and how to prevent a recurrence of those errors.

Media focus on the agency’s occasional errors ignores the vast amount of good work the 6,500-person organization does, Pierson told The New York Times. The Secret Service is only in the news when it makes mistakes.

“It’s frustrating,” Pierson told the Times.

AP material was used in this report.

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