Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Secret Service Misses by That Much

Maybe these Secret Service failures are what we need for a helpful does of bipartisanship in Washington.

Just as the water cooler jokes were beginning to grow stale regarding the intruder on White House grounds September 19, we learned yesterday that the intruder made it not just onto the lawn of the Executive Mansion, or to the entryway, or even an interior hallway - but all the way to the East Room. 

Apparently, nobody had bothered to lock the main door to the White House.

Let that sink in a minute.

Here we have the most important residence in the world, whose front door was literally unlocked.  An alarm box near the front door had been muted at the request of "the usher's office," whatever that is - and it doesn't sound like an officious enough office to be making security decisions.

And then the guard who captures the intruder?  He'd just rotated off of his shift, and was heading out of the mansion on his way home.  He just happened to notice the commotion being caused by the intruder, and tackled him just outside of the East Room.

Or, at least, that's the version currently being offered by the Secret Service.  Accounts of the event have varied since a grainy video of the intruder on the White House lawn went viral last week.  Today, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was grilled by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee - another hearing! - and while her version of the security breach offers no new details, it's clear that a department with the word "secret" in its name is having a hard time with both the "secret" and "service" aspects of their mission.

By the numbers, the Secret  Service could claim it's mostly doing its job.  In the past year, 16 people have tried to climb over the wrought-iron fence ringing the White House grounds, and only last week's intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was able to elude security.  Hey - one out of sixteen isn't a bad record, is it?

Well, no, except when we're talking about the White House.

It goes to show you how gullible even a cynic like me can be.  Here I've been, all these years, for some reason thinking that sharpshooters were stationed on the roof of the White House, that security cameras constantly monitored every square foot of both the house and its lawn, and that the perimeter fencing bristled with motion detection equipment.  I've heard anecdotal stories about how tiny machine guns are hidden under grass-covered trap doors across the lawn, and how cameras planted within trees and the well-manicured shrubbery secretly record the premises.  Someplace, a secret bunker staffed with agents constantly monitoring these gadgets are on hair-trigger alert for anything out of the ordinary.  Think James Bond, Hogan's Heroes, and Mission Impossible, right?

Apparently, however, what any occupant of the White House gets is mostly a remake of Get Smart.  In reality, at least according to our government's non-classified version, the layers of security ordinarily deployed by the Secret Service are disappointingly unsophisticated, and rely almost exclusively on humans doing the right things at the right time.  This is how the Washington Post describes their plan:

"The agency relies on these successive layers as a fail-safe for protecting the president and the White House complex.

"In this incident, a plainclothes surveillance team was on duty that night outside the fence, meant to spot jumpers and give early warning before they made it over.  But that team did not notice Gonzalez.  There was an officer in a guard booth on the North Lawn.  When that officer could not reach Gonzalez, there was supposed to be an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door — all at the ready.

"The dog was not released, a decision now under review.  Some people familiar with the incident say the handler probably felt he could not release the dog, because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez and the dog may have attacked them instead."

Of course, the Secret Service has as its defense the fact that neither President Obama nor any member of his family were in the White House, or on its grounds.  The President and his daughters had left ten minutes ago for Camp David, and Michelle Obama and her mother, who reportedly lives with the family and helps supervise her granddaughters, were elsewhere as well.  So the most any intruder could have done was attack a member of the Secret Service, or a member of the mansion's housekeeping staff.

Nevertheless, again, the big point here is that this building we're talking about is the White House.  The place where presidents of the United States live.  The place where presidents of the United States entertain foreign heads of state and other influential dignitaries.  Not only that, but it's full of historically important antiques, and stands as an elegant symbol of peaceable democracy, since its occupants move into and out of it at the whim of America's electorate.

And the Secret Service leaves its front door unlocked?

Not to be outdone, the Secret Service apparently perpetrated yet another horrendous gaffe on the President, earlier in September, when the Commander-in Chief was allowed to ride in an elevator in Atlanta with an unvetted contractor.

Turns out, that unvetted contractor has three prior convictions for assault and battery.  When Secret Service agents ran a background check on the fellow, and discovered his criminal past, he was fired on the spot.  Imagine their additional embarrassment, however, when the just-fired contractor accepted being fired, and offered to turn over the gun he had on his person!  The Secret Service had no idea the guy was carrying a weapon.

And he rode in an elevator an arm's length from the President of the United States.

Of course, there are times during the course of any presidency when the Commander-in-Chief is out and about with the general public, like the Obama family was during their Cape Cod vacation this past summer.  Obviously, the Secret Service cannot vet every single person who might be able to come into firing rage of the President.  But the Secret Service should be able to exercise a considerable level of discretion when it comes to the people they allow to ride with the President in an elevator.

It's this discretion that the Secret Service appears to be increasingly unwilling - or unable- to exercise that is capturing the the collective consternation of elected officials in Washington.  Bipartisan surprise and anger over the way the Secret Service is protecting the President appears to be bubbling up on Capitol Hill, with both Republicans and Democrats calling for answers and fixes.

After all, not only does the Secret Service protect Democrats, but they're also expected to protect Republicans.  And even though plenty of rancor exists across America's political spectrum these days, it's at least heartening to hear members of both parties say that even Barak Obama's life and health, as well as the life and health of his family, should be of primary importance to all of us.  That's the way it should be, and we need to remember that "health" applies not only to the First Family's physical health, but also their mental and emotional health - two things that likely are frequent casualties from the slings and arrows of unwarranted harassment, gossip, rhetoric, and unvarnished hate speech from their detractors.

But let's get back to that front door thing at the White House.  One little item we learned from Director Pierson today involved her department's inability until after September 19 to remotely control that lock.  Up until Gonzalez' intrusion, the bolt had to be turned to lock by hand.  Just like you do for your front door.  Pierson says that's no longer the case at the White House, as if that news is any solace.

On the one hand, don't you feel like welcoming the Secret Service to the Twentieth  Century?  "Hey, did you know they have remote-control electronic lock thingeys now?"

On the other hand, doesn't it make you suspect that maybe they're still using the Cone of Silence at the White House?

Update:  One day later, Director Pierson has resigned.  Is she the "fall gal" for the real incompetents within the Secret Service?  Time will tell.

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