When Barack Obama took office, many people feared someone would try to kill him. So it is utterly confounding – and absolutely unacceptable – that the Secret Service appears to be falling far short of its sworn duty to protect the president.
The daily revelations of its failures suggest there is something fundamentally wrong at the agency.
A man armed with a knife who jumped the White House fence on Sept. 19 – the 16th such case in the last five years – managed to get all the way into the ceremonial East Room before an off-duty Secret Service officer finally tackled him. Obama and his family had just left the White House, but that was pure luck.
In 2011, at least seven shots from a high-powered rifle hit the south side of the White House, smashing a window in the first family’s residence. Secret Service agents were slow to respond to that incident.
Julia Pierson, who became Secret Service director in 2013, told a congressional hearing Tuesday that she took full responsibility for the breaches and pledged that “it will never happen again.” That – and her promise of a comprehensive review of the incidents – didn’t satisfy members of either party on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
And after she tried to reassure lawmakers, The Washington Post reported an even scarier close call.
Apparently, a security contractor with a gun was allowed on an elevator with Obama when he went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Sept. 16 to announce new efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak. It was only after Secret Service agents got nervous because the contractor wouldn’t stop taking a cellphone video that they learned he had previous convictions for assault. He was fired – and then surprised agents by turning over his weapon.
According to the Post’s sources, Pierson did not report the incident to a unit that investigates such security lapses. If she sought to hide what happened, that is a real problem.
The agency also appears not to have been completely forthcoming in the intruder episode. Secret Service officials gave the distinct impression that Omar Gonzalez had barely made it inside the White House when he was apprehended.
It turns out that there were multiple lapses that allowed Gonzalez, who was indicted Tuesday on federal and local charges, to get so deep into the White House. After he scaled the perimeter fence, guard dogs were not released, a “crash box” security alert did not work because it had been muted, and a surprised Secret Service agent was overpowered.
So far, President Obama has expressed confidence in the Secret Service. These disclosures ought to give him pause – and to consider making some major changes, starting at the top.