The Secret Service tries to get its groove back

The Secret Service's cruisers patrol the streets around the White House. The agency is trying to recover from its embarrassing breeches near the end of 2014. Photo by Roger Schultz at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

The Secret Service’s cruisers patrol the streets around the White House. The agency is trying to recover from its embarrassing breeches near the end of 2014. Photo by Roger Schultz at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

By Austin Cannon

We visited the White House yesterday for a tour of the East Wing and a meeting with a Drake alumnus, Ryan Price, who works in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. After our meeting with Ryan, we had to go through security before we entered the actual building for our tour. The process was, well, thorough.

We had to go through several ID checks, a metal detector and an inspection from a bomb-sniffing dog. All under the watchful eye of uniformed Secret Service officers. And that was just to get into the building. Inside the virtual fortress that is the White House, you find a small army of special agents, who are the last and most formidable line of defense between the outside and the president. Outside, uniformed officers stand guard on the streets bordering the mansion. Sharpshooters watch crowds from the roof of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Barricades, guard houses and a fence surround the whole complex. It looked nearly impenetrable, unless you’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen.

Yet, just four months ago, a man climbed over the fence and onto the grounds. He made it all the way into the house itself. How on earth did he manage that? To me, the officers, guns, cameras and dogs were intimidating enough to make me extremely glad they’re on our side. They looked equipped to handle a low-scale apocalypse. How did they not handle this one guy?

In a conversation with All Things Considered host Renee Montagne, NPR’s Brian Naylor described the Secret Service’s truly incredible failure to contain the jumper, Omar Gonzalez.

Well, we have a lot of new details, Renee, that provide a picture of what one Republican congressman is calling a comedy of errors that occurred last September 19. That was when Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran, scaled the fence along Pennsylvania Avenue. So here’s the first mistake or issue. It turns out that the top part of the fence that he climbed over was broken, and it didn’t have that kind of ornamental spike that might have slowed him down. Gonzalez then set off alarms when he got over the fence, and an officer assigned to the alarm board announced over the Secret Service radio there was a jumper. But they didn’t know the radio couldn’t override other normal radio traffic. Other officers said they didn’t see Gonzalez because of a construction project along the fence line itself. And in one of the most perhaps striking breaches, a K-9 officer was in his Secret Service van on the White House driveway. But he was talking on his personal cell phone when this happened. He didn’t have his radio earpiece in his ear. His backup radio was in his locker. Officers did pursue Gonzalez, but they didn’t fire because they didn’t think he was armed. He did have a knife. He went through some bushes that officers thought were impenetrable, but he was able to get through them and to the front door. And then an alarm that would’ve alerted an officer inside the front door was muted, and she was overpowered by Gonzales when he burst through the door. So just a string of miscues.

So that’s bad enough to get several people fired. But then it got worse. On Sept. 16, an armed contractor with an arrest record rode an elevator with President Obama, and Secret Service Director Julia Pierson didn’t tell Obama until she knew the media had it. C’mon, guys. Impenetrable bushes? For real? Needless to say, Pierson resigned on Oct. 1.

But, back to today. I noticed small, temporary barriers in front of the actual fence to make sure people don’t even get near it. I guess that’s one short-term solution. For the long term, the Department of Homeland Security instructed an independent panel to review the security lapses. Among other things, the panel recommended a more formidable fence and more training for the agents.

The Secret Service faced, and might still be facing, the tall task of regaining the public’s trust. To me, these lapses were the closest of calls. They exposed monumental weaknesses. It was supremely lucky none of the First Family was injured. It was a wake-up call the agency desperately needed, and it will hopefully be better off for it. My guess is after these gigantic miscues, the agents and officers will be even more vigilant in their protection duties. And they better be. They’re supposed to be the best.

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