The story of Omar J. Gonzalez‘ foray into the White House last week and the Secret Service’s inability to stop him before he entered the building is almost cartoonish.
– Guy carrying a knife jumps big, wrought-iron fence protecting the perimeter.
– Runs into the White House’s north door, outside of which someone is supposed to be standing guard but isn’t.
– Overpowers a woman Secret Service agent inside the door and tears into the East Room, (where President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden).
– Scurries toward the Green Room, where he is finally overpowered before entering.
If you want a detailed look at “Omar’s Great Adventure,” check out this New York Times graphic. It will leave you shaking your head, just like every other aspect of this incident.
To me, these are the most troubling aspects of this sorry episode:
1) It raises the question of whether the Secret Service can be trusted to do the jobs it’s supposed to do — protect the president, his family and other top government officials.
2) It exposes the Secret Service and the White House as liars for initially withholding the details of the encroachment and blatantly downplaying it. (It was clear the details were going to emerge, so why not be transparent from the outset?)
3) It probably screwed the pooch for people like us, who, every once in a while, like to view the White House from the fence.
Let me start with the last point first.
I was in Washington in May — for the first time in more than 40 years — and had never seen the White House, so that was a definite goal. It was much harder to get to the fence than I imagined. Parking near the White House is impossible, understandably, so I was hoofing it, along with thousands of other tourists. Even after getting within a few blocks, it took me a good 20 to 30 minutes to wend my way to the fence, following the prescribed and allowed route.
Once at the fence, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest. I held onto the iron pickets and, for several minutes, took in the view of the beautiful, expansive lawn and the sparkling-white White House. Before leaving, I put my camera between the iron pickets and snapped several frames. (See photo below left.)
I relate that experience because I think the next time I try to see the White House up close, things will be a lot different. I suspect that there will be a much larger perimeter fence around the White House fence and that I will have to empty my pockets, maybe take off my shoes and go through a metal detector — or at least be wanded — before being admitted to the area between the outer fence and the real fence.
…All because the Secret Service is so screwed up that it can’t even stop a guy at the front door of what is supposed to be the most secure house in the country.
Back to the first point – whether the Secret Service is fit to do its job — Secret Service Director Julia Pierson this morning told a congressional committee that “what happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again.”
That’s her prediction. Mine is that Ms. Pierson, who has headed the service since March 2013, won’t be around to see the upcoming overhaul of the agency.
The New York Times reported that Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, today questioned the “competence and culture” of the Secret Service, saying:
“I hate to even imagine what could have happened if Gonzalez had been carrying a gun instead of a knife when he burst inside the White House. That possibility is extremely unsettling.”
Obama and his family were not at the White House at the time, but if they had been, it’s not out of the question that Gonzalez could have confronted Obama or a member of the First Family. When we are in our homes after all, we are constantly moving around our houses. This house just happens to be bigger than most.
In any event, I feel confident that thought of a Gonzalez-Obama encounter guarantees that Ms. Pierson will not stay on as director.
And finally the lying.
In an interview last week, Pierson told The Times, “It’s unacceptable to me that Mr. Gonzalez was able to penetrate the North Portico door.”
The Times went on to say:
“Ms. Pierson did not reveal in that interview that Mr. Gonzalez made it far past the front door, overpowered an agent inside the building, ran through the ceremonial East Room and was stopped just before entering the Green Room, a small parlor along the south side of the White House.
“Other Secret Service officials had told reporters that Mr. Gonzalez was tackled just inside the North Portico doors, and White House officials made no effort to correct that record last week during repeated questioning about the incident.”
That is ridiculous. It raises even deeper questions, not only about the Secret Service but also about Obama’s apparent willingness to conceal the details of a frightening incident of extreme public interest.
Proof of that extreme public interest is that The Times’ story about the extent of Gonzalez’ encroachment had drawn more than 650 comments as of this morning.
One of those commenters — a man who identified himself only as Dean — wrote the following:
“Clean house. Keep the Secret Service agents who do a good job on the personal details (specific protective assignments) and let Marines guard the White House and its ground.”
Sounds like a good plan to me.