Fence jumper got deep inside White House: What's up with Secret Service?

The idea that a fence jumper made it so far into the White House raises serious questions about the competence of the Secret Service in what was supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world. 

Evan Vucci/AP
A Secret Service police officer holds a weapon as he stands near an entrance to the White House complex during an evacuation minutes after President Obama departed Washington for Camp David aboard Marine One on Sept. 19, 2014.

The Washington Post is reporting that the man who jumped the fence last week at the White House and was not apprehended until he got to the building itself got much further into the mansion than previously reported:

The man who jumped the White House fence this month and sprinted through the front door made it much farther into the building than previously known, overpowering one Secret Service officer and running through much of the main floor, according to three people familiar with the incident.

An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The female officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through. Officers are trained that, upon learning of an intruder on the grounds, often through the alarm boxes posted around the property, they must immediately lock the front door.

After barreling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident

Secret Service officials had earlier said he was quickly detained at the main entry. Agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said the office is not commenting due to an ongoing investigation of the incident.

People jumping over the White House fence has become a more common occurrence, but most individuals are tackled by Secret Services officers guarding the complex before getting even a third of the way across the lawn. Gonzalez is the first person known to have jumped the fence and made it inside the executive mansion.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson has said the breach was “unacceptable” to her, and on Friday she briefed President Obama on her plans to shore up security.

George Zornick, the Washington Editor of The Nation posted a map on Twitter, showing just how far Gonzalez got before the Secret Service was able to get him:

When it was first reported that Gonzalez had actually gotten to the front door of the White House, it was widely seen as an incredibly serious incident. While fence jumpers have become increasingly common at the White House, all of them prior to Gonzalez were captured and detained by Secret Service agents long before they got anywhere near the building. In this case, there was some early indication that the fact that the incident occurred at roughly the same time that the First Family was departing on Marine One for Camp David from the South Lawn could have meant that security was not paying sufficient attention to the North Lawn area where Gonzalez jumped that fence. In response to those initial reports, the Secret Service installed a second fence around the White House that, while shorter, is apparently meant to slow fence jumpers down to give security more time to respond. There has also been some talk of further security measures, including the somewhat radical step of closing off the area of Pennsylvania Avenue directly in front of the White House to unrestricted pedestrian traffic, but those measures are apparently on hold pending a security review. In any case, the idea of someone actually making it to the White House front door was sufficiently serious that it has raised concerns in Washington and on Capitol Hill, where oversight hearings are being scheduled.

Today’s revelations, of course, make this entire story far more serious. It was bad enough that Gonzalez made it all the way to the building, the idea that he made it so far into the building that he was, for all purposes, on the other side of the building, is clearly a breach of security that raises serious questions about the competence of the Secret Service and its security plans for what is supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world. While the president was not on the premises at the time, that is not supposed to mean that the security is any less stringent, and if he could get to the East Room, who knows where else he could have gotten. Even more disturbing, of course, is the implication from the Washington Post report that the Secret Service was not telling the truth about what happened last week. While some of that may arguably be due to the desire not to reveal security details that could be used by others, it raises yet more questions about an agency that has been under fire ever since we learned that several agents on the presidential detail were patronizing prostitutes in advance of a presidential visit to Colombia.

This news comes just days about another Washington Post story on the Secret Service regarding a 2011 incident during which a man fired shots at the building. The details of that Post investigation are far too detailed and voluminous to adequately summarize, but basically the determination was made almost immediately after the incident occurred that no shots had hit the building even though agents who had been outside had heard debris falling from the Truman Balcony. Instead, it took several days for anyone to discover the damage, and when they did, it was the housekeepers who found the broken glass, not the Secret Service. Neither the president nor Mrs. Obama were in the White House when this happened, but both their daughters and Mrs. Obama’s mother were, and the first couple was not notified of what happened until several days later, which apparently caused the first lady to become understandably furious. The man who fired the shots was actually apprehended quickly and was recently sentenced to 25 years in federal prison, but this obviously indicates that the Secret Service has had issues regarding the defense of the White House for quite some time.

There will obviously be further investigations of last week’s events, as well as the 2011 incident in light of the Washington Post story this weekend. However, at the very least, it seems as though there is something wrong at the US Secret Service.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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