Secret Service Review Of Fence Jumping Incident Finds Multiple Failures

There's not much good news in the initial review of September's fence jumping incident at the White House.

Obama With Secret Service

The New York Times is out with a report about the internal review of recent Secret Service failures at the White House, and the news is about as bad as could be expected:

WASHINGTON — An intruder was able to climb a fence and enter the White House in September because of a succession of “performance, organizational, technical” and other failures by the Secret Service, according to a damning review of the incident by the Department of Homeland Security.

The review found that the Secret Service’s alarm systems and radios failed to function properly, and that many of the responding officers did not see the intruder as he climbed over the fence, delaying their response.

Omar Gonzalez, the man charged in the incident, could have been stopped by a Secret Service officer who was stationed on the North Lawn with an attack dog, the review said. But the officer did not realize that an intruder had made it over the fence because he was sitting in his van talking on his personal cellphone.

(..)

The bulk of the report focuses on what happened on the evening of Sept. 19, from the time officers recognized Mr. Gonzalez outside the White House.

Mr. Gonzalez did not appear to show any odd behavior, so the officers did not talk to him or alert their supervisors. An hour later, at 7:19 p.m., officers on Pennsylvania Avenue spotted him climbing over the fence at a point where one of the ornamental spikes was missing. The officers ran toward him and told him to stop, but he continued over the fence onto the North Lawn.

One officer called over his radio that someone had gone over the fence, and an alarm was sounded. Two officers approached Mr. Gonzalez with their firearms pointed at him and told him to stop. He continued running, and the officers decided not to use lethal force because they did not believe he was armed.

One of the officers followed Mr. Gonzalez into the bushes in front of the North Portico but lost sight of him.

The summary said that the officers “were surprised that Gonzalez was able to get through the bushes” because “prior to that evening, the officers believed the bushes” were too thick to pass through.

It was at that time that the officer with the dog joined the pursuit.

An officer stationed nearby was unable to see what was occurring because his view was obstructed by trees and bushes. That officer “was unable to hear any comprehensible radio communications about alarm breaks or Gonzalez” until he had gotten close to the North Portico entrance.

“By the time the officer exited his vehicle and began yelling commands at Gonzalez, Gonzalez had nearly arrived at the bushes,” according to the summary. “The officer was unable to reach Gonzalez before he entered the bushes and, as a result, went around the bushes toward the North Portico only to find that Gonzalez had already entered the White House.”

An officer stationed at the North Portico door could not hear on the radio what was occurring and had an obstructed view. Instead of remaining at the door, the officer took out his weapon and took cover behind a pillar. The officer put his finger on the trigger of his gun, pointed it at Mr. Gonzalez as he came up the stairs, and told him to stop. But, Mr. Gonzalez continued running and the officer did not shoot because he did not believe Mr. Gonzalez was armed. It was later discovered that Mr. Gonzalez had a knife.

The wooden doors at the North Portico were closed and the officer assumed they were locked. “Believing that Gonzalez was trapped, and concerned that the canine might erroneously lock onto him, the officer chose to remain in place and out of the way” of the other officers who were chasing after him.

But the doors were not locked, and Mr. Gonzalez entered the White House. The emergency communication system by the entrance had been muted. As the officer stationed there tried to lock the doors, Mr. Gonzalez “barged through them and knocked her backward.” She told him to stop but he continued on to the East Room.

“After attempting twice to physically take Gonzalez down but failing to do so because of the size disparity between the two, the officer then attempted to draw her baton but accidentally grabbed her flashlight instead,” the report said. “The officer threw down her flashlight, drew her firearm, and continued to give Gonzalez commands that he ignored.”

Mr. Gonzalez entered the East Room, but then exited, heading down the hallway. Two officers stationed in the White House, assisted by two plainclothes agents who had just finished their shifts, tackled him.

Another part of the report that has been repeated elsewhere states that at least one of the on-duty agents was talking on their personal cell phone while they were supposed to be on duty, failed to notice Gonzalez on the North Lawn, or hear the radio chatter since he had his earpiece out of his ear, and didn’t release the dog he was handling until it was too late to help take Gonzalez down. As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that there were agents preparing to go into the White House itself to give chase to Gonzalez who were apparently unaware of the layout of the building seems, well, odd in and of itself. I can understand the idea of people operating on a “need to know” basis and that agents whose primarily responsible for securing the exterior of the White House might not be fully attuned to all of the details of the buildings interior, but it seems odd to me that they wouldn’t at least have some kind of working knowledge of the inside of the building in case something like this had happened. Also incomprehensible is the idea that the agents decided not to open fire on Gonzalez once he had slipped past the less lethal forms of security such as the fence and the dog. There is value, I will admit, in taking someone like this alive to determine if they are just the typical lone nut, which seems to be what most of these people who have jumped the White House fence turn out to be, or if they are part of some kind of broader threat. That being said, at some point, you would think that a situation like this would at some point bring out the kind of lethal force that one might expect to see used against someone who had just run a full-front assault on what was supposedly one of the most secure buildings in the world. Letting him get all the way to the East Room? That’s obviously a security failure for which people need to answer.

As I’ve noted before in writing about this incident, neither the President nor any of the members of the First Family were present when this happened, In fact, they had just left the South Lawn on the other side of the White House Complex moments before Gonzalez jumped the fence, which itself may have been one of the reasons that agents were distracted and Gonzalez was able to slip through the cracks. Additionally, one has to wonder if the fact that the First Family was away caused the agents to let their guard down to some degree. That shouldn’t happen, of course, since Gonzalez could easily have been a threat to anyone who worked in the White House or caused other damage to the building or its contents, but it would not be entirely surprising if part of what happened here was a variation on the “it’s Friday and the boss left early” attitude. Of course, the Secret Service isn’t supposed to have that kind of an attitude, they are supposed to be fully on guard regardless of whether or not the President is in the White House.

Whatever the reasons, though, it seems clear that there are problems at the Secret Service that need to be addressed beyond the resignation of its former director. Training is one obvious concern, as are policies that would allow agents to even have personal cell phones in their possession when they’re on duty, something which seems like a rather obvious security risk beyond the question of whether or not it might distract an agent. Additionally, the report mentions personnel losses that bring into question the issue of whether the agencies budget may have been cut too much, or in the wrong areas. We still haven’t learned who the President might pick as a new Director, but whoever the President selects is going to have quite a task ahead of them.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    You don’t “Professionalize” until you “Federalize”…that’s what they said in 2002 when they converted airport security to a function of Federal Government with the TSA.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Wait…I thought fences are so effective that if we built one the length of the US/Mexico border it would stop all the illegal brown people?
    Apparently fences aren’t the people stopping panacea the wing-nuts think they are.

  3. Stonetools says:

    Pro a certain extent, the problem is that security is not a paramount concern of securing the WH. Optics play a part. A fairly simple way of stopping gate jumpers would be to put a roll of barbed wire at the top of the fence-but that wouldn’t look very ornamental.
    Even so, it’s clear that there were multiple failures here. It’s a good thing this was a lightly armed lone whacko, not a team of heavily armed, well trained and highly motivated terrorists.

  4. Pinky says:

    I’d be a lot more worried if they didn’t find multiple errors.

    On a side note, I heard a radio story about this last night that mentioned the “canine dog”.

  5. CatDog says:

    @Pinky:..On a side note, I heard a radio story about this last night that mentioned the “canine dog”.

    Hey!

  6. Pinky says:

    @CatDog: No disrespect intended to feline dogs.

    (Yeesh, every minority group has a spokesman…)

  7. Peter says:

    If I had my way I’d abolish the Secret Service’s executive protection functions and limit the president’s security detail to maybe 10 or 12 bodyguards.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    @Peter:..If I had my way…

    How often do you get “your way”?