Secret Service Debacle: Lax White House security and misleading accounts

I am downright furious with the Secret Service.

Not only has this supposedly elite corps done an abysmal job of protecting the president and his family, but it hasn’t leveled with the public about its mistakes.

In fact, there is an unmistakable whiff of a coverup.

I’ve lived through the assassination of one president and covered the near-fatal wounding of another. This is deadly serious business. The White House is supposed to be the most protected home in the country, and yet it seems like the Keystone Kops are in charge.

At a House oversight hearing yesterday, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson took “full responsibility” for the fiascos, but she testified in a flat and unemotional way, deflecting most questions with bureaucratic jargon about “security protocols” that were “not properly executed” and the like.

A telling moment came in the hallway, when MSNBC’s Kristen Welker asked Pierson whether she had lied to the public or been misled by her own agency. Pierson said only that the matter was under investigation.

Thanks to the superb reporting of the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, we learned that the White House fence-jumper a couple of weeks ago made it all the way to the East Room—a far different scenario than what was publicly peddled, that the knife-wielding Omar Gonzalez had been tackled as soon as he got in the North Portico door.

And there are jaw-dropping details like this: “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.”

And Leonnig reported yesterday that Gonzalez was brought down by “an off-duty Secret Service agent who was coincidentally in the house and leaving for the night”—because the on-duty agents had failed. Imagine if he hadn't been there. Incredible.

The fact that Gonzalez, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, even made it to the door of the executive mansion shows that several layers of security failed. The fact that he could overpower an officer inside and make it to the side of the building where the East Room is located is just chilling. So is the fact that he passed a staircase that, if he had chosen a different route, would have taken him upstairs to the family living quarters.

And there were earlier failures: The plainclothes surveillance team that didn’t notice Gonzalez had scaled the fence. The attack dog that wasn’t released.

The Secret Service had even interviewed Gonzalez after a July incident in which Virginia’s state police found the following in his car: “a sawed-off shotgun, two sniper rifles, an assault rifle, a bolt-action rifle, one intact shotgun and five handguns. Police also found a map of the Washington area with a circle around the Masonic temple in Alexandria, Va., and a line that pointed toward the White House, police and prosecutors said.” But agents deemed him not to be a threat and let him go. When Gonzalez returned to the White House, fortunately, it was shortly after Obama had left for Camp David.

Just when you thought the list of lapses couldn't get any worse, Rep. Jason Chaffetz heard from a whistleblower--and the Post confirmed--a potentially close call two weeks ago in Atlanta. A security contractor with three prior convictions for assault and battery--and who was carrying a gun!--was allowed by agents to get on an elevator with Obama. How is that possible??

Equally stunning is this other story by Leonnig, about the 2011 incident in which seven bullets struck the White House: “It took the Secret Service four days to realize that shots had hit the White House residence, a discovery that came about only because a housekeeper noticed broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor.”

President Obama was not home at the time, but his daughter Sasha was upstairs with Michelle’s mother, and Malia was expected home any minute.

Obama was reported to be furious. And who wouldn’t be?

The earlier Secret Service scandals now seem like comic relief by comparison. Two years ago, a bunch of agents in Colombia spent the night drinking and brought prostitutes to the hotel where they were preparing for an Obama visit.

At the House hearing yesterday, there was rare bipartisan unanimity that the agency is a mess. Chairman Darrell Issa questioned how people could penetrate what should be “the hardest target on earth.” Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings said the latest episode “raises more questions about the competency and the culture” of the agency.

What’s infuriating is to read that the service may not be at its best because of budget cuts. If that’s the case, someone should have argued for more resources. Would anyone have argued that protecting the president isn’t a top priority? How can it be that something as simple as jumping over a wrought-iron fence can put the president’s life in jeopardy because, as happened in this case, several layers of security failed?

Now there’s talk of expanding the security zone along Pennsylvania Avenue, which isn’t practical and is a dumb response to the service’s own mistakes.

I’ve been in that beautiful building many, many times, and in the cavernous East Room during holiday receptions. Sometimes I’ve had trouble getting in even when I have an appointment with a top official. The idea that an intruder with a knife could get that far should make every American mad.

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