When an armed intruder jumped the fence and penetrated deep into the White House, it provided a field day for cartoonists and some members of the House of Representatives — who turned Julia Pierson, the hapless Secret Service director, into a piñata at a hearing Tuesday.
President Barack Obama and his family, fortunately, had left for the weekend before the intrusion. Omar J. Gonzalez, an Iraq Army veteran, said he wanted to warn the president, ”the atmosphere was collapsing.” But the incident raised serious questions about the chief executive’s safety in his own home.
The White House is usually described as the most heavily guarded residence in the nation. Uniformed Secret Service patrol the perimeter, backed by a SWAT team with automatic weapons. An attack dog, a Belgian Malinois, is trained to take down any intruder. The dog was not released on Sept. 19, however, when Gonzalez got in the unlocked front door. He made it all the way through the ceremonial East Room, possibly overpowering a female guard, before he was tackled and finally stopped by an off-duty Secret Service agent.
The executive mansion is supposedly protected day and night, surrounded by a no-fly zone. Its windows are bulletproof. Its air may be screened to foil biological or chemical attacks.
Could more be done to make the building safer? Exotic technology might be introduced. Theoretically, at least at night, laser beams, so enamored by Hollywood movies about museum heists and jewel thefts, could be positioned on the ground floor to set off alarms. But that would be impractical in the living quarters on the second floor. And what if Bo and Sunny the first family’s frisky Portuguese water dogs triggered the laser beam alarms?
Other James Bond-type security could be established. Motion detectors, for example, could be planted in the lawn and trigger a concealed second security fence with sharp spikes that would pop up out of the ground and stop intruders long enough for guards to disable them.
Sealed thick glass doors could be installed on the stairways leading up to the family quarters. Even if an intruder or assault team got in the White House, these doors would at least buy time for agents to close in on the threat.
But other security measures, such as those used by government intelligence agencies, would be of little use in the White House. In the CIA, for example, many offices cannot be entered except through locks with push-button combinations known only to authorized users. These are designed to keep some employees or visitors out of high-security areas where they might see and identify covert officers. But the CIA has thousands of employees, the White House has a far smaller staff, without the same need to cordon off high-security areas or protect covert identities.
Nor can the White House distance itself from Washington. The CIA is out in the woods in Langley, Virginia, the National Security Agency, the government’s eavesdropping and code-breaking arm, is far from the capital in Fort Meade, Maryland. That isolation would not work for the White House, a symbol of America that has to be highly visible and sits in the middle of the capital, where millions of visitors pass through its public rooms every year.
In the end, low-tech solutions may prove more effective than sophisticated technology. More security cameras, better lighting, more guards, silent alarms and random checks to insure that uniformed agents are alert and at their stations may provide more safety to the president than electronic gadgetry.
The government could also build higher fences. Or push the pedestrian barriers further away, as it did after the fence-jumper incident on Sept. 19.
But there are limits to technological and physical security. The White House, after all, is the people’s house and a residence for the president and his family. The Secret Service has to balance the president’s protection against the perception that the executive mansion has become an inaccessible medieval castle, with battlements and moat.
The executive mansion is already less accessible to the public than in past years. In 1995, after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to traffic to prevent an attacker with a car bomb from getting near the White House.
The White House should definitely lock the front door — as most home owners in urban areas like Washington do. But the unpalatable but sadly true fact is that there is no way to provide complete protection to the president.
The point was driven home late Tuesday, after a House committee had bombarded Pierson with hostile questions. The Washington Post reported that on Sept. 16, three days before the White House intruder, an armed security contractor shared an elevator with Obama during the president’s trip to Atlanta to review the Ebola crisis with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC contractor was fired and turned over his gun to Secret Service agents.
A study commissioned for the Secret Service in the 1990s, the Washington Post has reported, found that a half-dozen fence jumpers, acting in unison, would overwhelm the uniformed officers and some would make it into the White House. Or if a small plane or helicopter crashed onto the grounds, the study concluded, at least one or two attackers who get inside the building. A mortar fired from one of the park areas south of the White House could hit the building and do extensive damage.
On Nov. 11, 2011 a man, who was later arrested, fired at least seven bullets that hit the White House. He believed the government was trying to control the country by implanting GPS chips in children and that Obama was “the anti-Christ.” The president and his wife were in California, but his younger daughter, Sasha, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s mother were in the residence. It took the Secret Service several days even to realize that the shots had hit the White House.
In 1974, an Army private stole a helicopter and landed on the south lawn of the White House. Again in 1994, a man crashed a Cessna on the south lawn and skidded into the corner of the first floor. He died in the crash, which was ruled a probable suicide. President Bill Clinton and his family were not home.
Clinton was reportedly not close to James Woolsey, his CIA director. At the time, of the airplane crash, a joke circulated in Washington that the plane on the lawn was Woolsey, trying to get an appointment with the president.
In theory, a no-fly zone over Washington, known as ADIZ, protects the White House and the Capitol and other targets. It did not stop the Sept. 11 terrorists on from crashing an airliner into the Pentagon, however. And the al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 were believed to be planning to crash into the White House or the Capitol. The plane went down instead in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought with the terrorists.
The 9/11 attacks, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, and the 1990s study demonstrated the obvious — that political leaders and even the White House itself cannot be fully insulated from determined attackers.
The latest fence-jumping episode showed that the Secret Service needs to greatly improve its operations. The budget cuts that reduced the number of officers who protect the White House, should be restored.
The incident also demonstrated the difficult task faced by Secret Service agents every day. Gonzalez, the fence-jumper, had been stopped by police in rural Virginia during the summer with an arsenal of weapons in his car, and a map with a line pointing to the White House. In August, the Secret Service saw him walking along the south fence with a hatchet. He was interviewed by the Secret Service in both cases, but they did not have enough reason to hold him as a threat to the president.
In a democratic society, citizens cannot be arrested for merely acting suspiciously or seeming eccentric. The Secret Service has sometimes hassled people at political gatherings where the president appears, but for the most part its agents do not abuse their power.
They are well aware that no amount of weaponry, floodlights, alarm systems and attack dogs can really protect the White House in a world of terrorists and suicide bombers.
David Wise writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. His most recent book is “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China.” His other books include “Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI’s Robert Hanssen Betrayed America.”
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