After an unprecedented security breach Friday night at the White House, the U.S. Secret Service is weighing a series of measures that would move tourists and D.C. residents farther away from the complex to reduce the chances of intruders piercing its security perimeter and endangering the president.
One proposal is to keep people off the sidewalks around the White House fence and create several yards of additional barrier around the compound’s perimeter. Another is to screen visitors as far as a block away from the entrance gates.
The plans for enhanced security come after an incident Friday that exposed gaps in the Secret Service’s ability to secure the formal seat of the executive and the home of the first family. A man jumped over the White House fence just after 7:20 p.m. and was able to sprint unimpeded to the North Portico and enter the unlocked front door of the White House.
It happened less than 10 minutes after President Obama left on his Marine One helicopter, and officers responding to the alarm for a fence-jumping could not reach the intruder before he reached the mansion. When he stepped inside the foyer, an officer stationed there subdued him.
All the security ideas being floated in the wake of the event are “notional at this point,” said an official familiar with the talks. The National Park Service controls much of the property on the border, so all ideas will have to be reviewed by multiple agencies as well as the Obama administration.
The White House declined to comment.
But the incident has sounded alarms at all levels of the Secret Service. On Saturday, Julia Pierson, director of the Secret Service, advised Obama’s senior staff that she had begun an internal review of how the man entered the front door of the White House without being stopped. She also stressed that she will take immediate steps to shore up security at the complex. Extra officers were added, starting Saturday morning, to all shifts working on the North Lawn.
Fence jumping has become more common at the White House, and at times the Secret Service has dealt with such occurrences almost monthly. But Friday was the first time a fence jumper has sprinted past officers on duty on the grounds and entered the executive residence.
The New York Times first reported Sunday that the Secret Service was considering screening visitors’ bags and identification farther away from the White House.
The Secret Service and every presidential administration has struggled to strike an admittedly awkward balance of keeping the White House both open and secure. Officials have worked to keep the compound a “hard target” but also to give the American people the feeling that it is “the people’s house” and not an impenetrable fortress.
The Secret Service has occasionally talked about fortifying the White House fence to keep out or discourage jumpers, and even putting barbed wire along the top. But that suggestion has been dismissed as giving the public a poor impression when most presidents want to project an image of being the accessible leader of an open democracy.
Authorities identified the jumper in this case as Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Texas. His family said he was a veteran of the Iraq war who served as a sniper. He was charged Saturday in D.C. Superior Court with trespassing and carrying a deadly weapon, a small knife.
His apparent success in entering the White House set off major alarms at the top of the Secret Service leadership and dealt the struggling agency yet another public relations setback as it has been trying to recover from a prostitution scandal involving agents on a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012. Current and former agents confided to friends that they were shocked by the breach. They predicted it would lead to an overhaul in security protocols.
The results of the internal security review will be shared with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
A member of Gonzalez’s family told The Washington Post that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had been living out of his car for more than a year. A Secret Service agent said Gonzalez told him after being handcuffed that he was concerned that the “atmosphere was collapsing” and that he needed to get the word to the president, so he could tell the citizens. It was unclear what Gonzalez meant.