Mathew Goldstein’s wrong turn near the White House started as a moment of confusion and ended as a national incident.
The IT specialist for the Internal Revenue Service was driving his gray Honda Civic along 17th Street NW on Tuesday afternoon when he inadvertently followed the motorcade carrying President Obama’s daughters into the secure perimeter for the presidential compound.
Goldstein, 55, who is charged with a misdemeanor and was released after a brief appearance in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday, told law enforcement officials that he had made a mistake and was not familiar with the roads around the White House.
“He was at a function downtown with colleagues and said he was just checked out mentally and confused,” said an official familiar with the incident. “It seems to be bad luck on his part.”
But Goldstein’s mistaken left turn raised serious questions about how an unauthorized vehicle was able to travel within five feet of the Obama girls’ motorcade and get through two rows of metal security bollards at the checkpoint at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Goldstein, described by a friend as brilliant but absent-minded, was so close to the motorcade that the large metal posts could not be raised in time to block the car, according to court papers filed Wednesday.
A foot-patrol officer stopped Goldstein, of Mitchellville, by stepping in front of the Honda as it neared Jackson Place NW and Pennsylvania Avenue. The officer removed Goldstein from his car. He was arrested, and the Honda was towed to a lot in Southwest for “safe keeping,” according to the documents.
When asked Wednesday how Goldstein was able to breach the outer perimeter, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said the agency would “have to review and find out how that did happen.”
“This incident is being taken seriously and it should not have happened,” Donovan said.
Former Secret Service officials characterized the incident, which led to the lockdown of the White House for more than an hour, as a modest failure of security. Even though Goldstein maneuvered past the checkpoint, he did not get past the rear-most vehicle.
“Obviously, any failure is basically viewed as unacceptable with the Service,” said W. Ralph Basham, who served as director of the agency from 2003 to 2006.
“It’s the human element,” he said. “You’re not expecting to see something like that, and when it’s that quick, being able to react in a timely fashion is challenging.”
Dan Emmett, another former Secret Service agent, said it was “amazing this did not happen long ago.”
A presidential motorcade has a marked tail car that stops to block the entrance once the “secure package” transporting the president is inside. On Tuesday, there was apparently no tail car blocking for the Obama daughters.
“Literally anyone can follow them,” said Emmett, the author of a book about his career, “Within Arm’s Length.” “I would be willing to bet they now have a tail car and will from now on.”
Donovan, the Secret Service spokesman, said the agency “does not comment on specific security arrangements for motorcades, and neither should our former personnel.”
But it is not uncommon for a presidential motorcade to be inadvertently breached when the president travels outside the District, and it happens a couple of times a year, according to the agency.
Intrusions occur when checkpoints are unmanned prematurely and cars enter the lengthy motorcade, which can have substantial gaps between the more than 20 vehicles. The overwhelming majority of breaches are considered mistakes.
But having a breach at the 17th Street checkpoint is extremely unusual, according to two law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Both Basham and another former Secret Service agent, who has experience with motorcades, said Obama’s daughters would have been traveling in a “stripped down” motorcade with far fewer support vehicles than the president’s entourage. In some cases, the smaller motorcades are without local police escorts so as not to draw attention, they said.
Basham said that during his tenure, confused motorists sometimes got near the motorcade but were forced out by police or intelligence vehicles. He could not recall any instance when a motorist got near the motorcade with the intent of doing harm to the president or another dignitary.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama would probably be briefed on Tuesday’s incident, he said.
“I’m sure they would be curious about whether this should have happened,” Basham said.
In the courtroom Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Karen Howze released Goldstein pending a hearing May 21. The misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry carries a maximum of 180 days in jail and a fine of as much as $1,000. The judge ordered Goldstein to stay away from the White House and its grounds.
Goldstein and his attorney declined to comment.
Don Wharton, who runs the Secular Perspectives blog, said he recruited Goldstein to be a contributor about three years ago. He described Goldstein as an introverted and intelligent atheist who cares deeply about the separation of church and state and had concerns about government surveillance.
Wharton said Goldstein never expressed any ill will toward President Obama or showed signs of violence. He spends some time as an activist for the coalition and writes a personal blog called the Explicit Atheist that has touched on subjects ranging from cosmology to political races in Arizona.
Goldstein’s brilliance, Wharton said, was also punctuated by an absent-mindedness.
“He is very capable of taking philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics and talking about them with clarity, Wharton said. “By most standards, that is a very competent manner of thinking. I can imagine him getting lost though.”