The U.S. Secret Service is now considering new measures to keep people farther from the White House after a fence jumper with a knife darted across the North Lawn and went through the front doors. The new security proposals include keeping D.C. residents and tourists off sidewalks surrounding the security fence, or perhaps establishing several security checkpoints a block away.
But how far should the Secret Service go to fortify the nation’s most famous residence? How threatened is the first family? And if the Secret Service allowed the latest guy to get so close, shouldn’t energy be focused on improving that agency’s performance rather than further restricting public access? How about locking the front door?
That was the discussion Sunday among some members of Congress — with plenty more to come, in light of the ease with which a man identified as Omar J. Gonzalez, a veteran described by his family as depressed, breached security. Though part of Gonzalez’s foot had reportedly been amputated after an encounter in Iraq with an improvised explosive device, he made his way across the White House lawn and through an unlocked door armed with a knife.
“This is the most basic, the most simple type of procedure and how anyone, especially in these days of ISIS, and we’re concerned about terrorist attacks, someone could actually get into the White House without being stopped is inexcusable,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” That could be because the Secret Service is not doing the proper audits, checks, test runs “to make sure that people are up to the right standard,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on “Face the Nation.”
Rogers, a former FBI agent, said: “It’s just a matter of the Secret Service upping their game to make sure that they can maintain that every detail matters…. A door locked, a quick reaction when somebody hits the fence and over the gate. I think they’re going to have reinstate some of these ongoing [self-audits] about what activities they participate in.”
“Never before has an intruder on the grounds managed to enter the White House itself,” said Ron Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.” “The fact that the Secret Service does not even provide a lock for the front door of the White House demonstrates its arrogance.”
Like so many other White House intruders, Gonzalez was generally described as mentally disturbed — like Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, who in 2011 fired eight rounds from a semiautomatic rifle at the White House, hitting a window on the south side, as he rode by. He acted in part because he thought that the federal government was seeking to control Americans by implanting global positioning chips in children and believed that President Obama was “the antichrist.”
Being unconnected to terrorist organizations does not make a man with an AK-47 less dangerous, of course.
“Firing an assault rifle at the White House to make a political statement is terrorism, plain and simple,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement when Ortega-Hernandez pleaded guilty. “As we have seen this week, gunmen who come to the nation’s capital bent on violence can inflict terrible damage. This act of cowardice put lives at risk.”
In 1974, a U.S. Army private, frustrated that he had failed to become an Army helicopter pilot, stole a chopper and planted it on the South Lawn. The same year, a man who claimed he was the messiah crashed his Chevrolet Impala through the Northwest Gate. Two years later, a local taxi driver with a rap sheet scaled the fence toting a three-foot-long metal pipe, moved toward the White House and was fatally shot by an officer.
Making sure the White House does not look like a king’s fortress has been the goal of the government since the Jeffersonian era. “Perhaps the most ‘American’ aspect of the White House is its accessibility, as evidenced by the millions of Americans and foreign visitors who visit there each year,” said a high-level report on security commissioned in 1994. “Since President Jefferson’s day, the White House has been an emphatically public residence — the ‘House of the People,’ which they may either enter or look upon without obstruction. In contrast, the great palaces of Europe were set within planned parks, high walls and fences designed with protection in mind.”
In Jefferson’s day, though, people couldn’t dive-bomb airplanes onto the White House grounds, which is what precipitated the appointment of the commission that wrote that report.
Specifically, on Sept. 12, 1994, Frank Eugene Corder flew his Cessna P150 over the Ellipse and dove directly at the White House, crashing into the lawn south of the mansion shortly before two in the morning. “The aircraft,” said the report, “skidded across the ground, struck a magnolia tree just west of the South Portico steps, and hit the southwest corner of the first floor of the Mansion,” which was unoccupied by the first family at the time.
Corder died in the attack on the White House, which was ruled intentional and a likely suicide. At the time of the crash, he abused alcohol and cocaine and faced a wide array of financial, marital and legal problems.
The White House was relatively accessible until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when the Secret Service shut down Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicle traffic.
And following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, few can argue that symbolic U.S. buildings — and perhaps leaders — may be successfully targeted by terrorists.
Even Jefferson was ambivalent. Early in his presidency, Thomas Jefferson kept the Executive Mansion unlocked and open to the public. He invited people to celebrate holidays in his presidential home.
But it was also Jefferson who later demanded its fortification, ordering the construction of an eight-foot-high stone wall to replace the meager rail fence that encircled the grounds. Some of it was built.