The last lunch hour of the summer was like many others outside the White House gates.
In Lafayette Square, office workers were eating, or just sitting, on the park benches. On the sidewalk nearest the White House, tourists were taking photos of the Executive Mansion through the ornamental fence. In the pedestrian section of Pennsylvania Avenue, the usual suspects presented their causes: anti-China, anti-nuclear, anti-gun, anti-same-sex-marriage. Jehovah’s Witnesses offered pamphlets. A man held a picket sign asking, “What Is Terrorism?”
The scene is as American as the White House itself — our own version of London’s Speakers’ Corner, almost literally in the shadow of the president’s house, where anybody can get on a proverbial soapbox and be heard, even if nobody is listening.
And now this custom is under threat.
As The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, the New York Times and others have reported, Friday’s fence-jumping episode, in which a man with a knife made it through the North Portico entrance of the White House, has the Secret Service considering extraordinary remedies: expanding the no-go zone around the mansion, adding a second fence, checking visitors’ identification and bags blocks from the building.
In other words, the Secret Service is preparing to punish the public for the agency’s mistakes. The fence-jumper probably wouldn’t have made it into the building if the Secret Service had released attack dogs — or if somebody had bothered to lock the White House door.
And a deeper problem may explain those mistakes. As The Post reported: “Former agents said they fear the breach may be related to a severe staffing shortage the agency has struggled with in the last year in its Uniform Division.” To plug the holes, the Secret Service has been flying in agents from other locations who don’t know the White House as well.
The Secret Service has been one of many victims of budget cutting in recent years. Its funding for the current year is $2.56 billion, down $5 million from 2012, according to budget expert Scott Lilly at the liberal Center for American Progress. The agency took a much bigger hit in 2013 because of sequestration. “The Secret Service has been frozen in time in a world that’s become more dangerous, and inflation means they have to pay more for the people who work for them,” Lilly said.
If the agency lacks the manpower to protect the president and his home, it should say so. It shouldn’t be dusting off an old wish list of security enhancements that has in the past included barbed wire. Barbed wire! Instead, perhaps it could build a moat around the White House and fill it with alligators. Uniformed Secret Service agents could pour hot oil on intruders who cross the drawbridge.
As troubling as the Secret Service’s response was the official White House response, which was to leave everything up to the Secret Service. White House press secretary Josh Earnest, in his noon briefing, said the Secret Service was reviewing “technical or physical security enhancements that may be necessary” but would see to it that “the White House continues to be the people’s house.”
Josh Lederman of the Associated Press asked whether President Obama would favor an expanded security perimeter. Earnest deferred to the “highly experienced professionals at the United States Secret Service.”
Major Garrett of CBS News asked if Obama has an opinion on installing a second fence. “The president is going to leave it up to the professionals, the United States Secret Service,” Earnest said.
But the Secret Service, which proposed closing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, doesn’t exist to protect constitutional rights; left to its own devices, it would install an iron dome over the White House. Few would object to discreet changes to boost security. But it’s another matter to impose sweeping new restrictions because of the latest in a long line of fence-jumpers. (One earlier this month wore a Pikachu hat and carried a Pokemon doll.)
On Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday, some sensible, if labor-intensive, precautions were in place. Several agents and an explosive-sniffing chocolate Labrador were on duty. Security vans were in the driveway, and a uniformed agent stood on the North Portico.
But does the agency have the manpower to keep that up rather than turning the White House into a fortress? In the closed-to-traffic section of the road, a Secret Service cruiser patrolled with an unusual url on its rear (www.secretservice.gov/join) directing people to the Secret Service recruitment page — a sign of an agency in need of new agents, as well as money to retain those it has.