fb-pixelSecurity reviewed after fence-jumper enters White House - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Security reviewed after fence-jumper enters White House

Secret Service officers walked along the fence on the north side of the White House.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Secret Service launched a security review on Saturday to learn how a man carrying a knife was able to get inside the front door of the White House Friday night after jumping a fence and sprinting more than 70 yards across the North Lawn — the first time that has ever happened.

The man — who prosecutors said served three tours in Iraq and relatives said had been a sniper — got to the front double doors of the North Portico within seconds, turned the brass knob, and stepped inside the vestibule. He was grabbed and subdued by an officer standing at his post inside the door. The intruder had a folding knife with a 2½-inch serrated blade.

Advertisement



The success Omar Gonzalez, 42, had in breaching White House security Friday night — roughly 10 minutes after the president and his daughters lifted off the south grounds in his helicopter for Camp David — exposed gaps in the Secret Service’s efforts to keep the first family safe and make the White House a ‘‘hard target.’’

The front door on the north portico of the mansion was unlocked at the time. It is a frequently used door, just one flight of stairs away from the Obama’s living quarters, and until now, the Secret Service did not imagine an intruder could reach it.

A trained attack dog — the Secret Service’s failsafe measure for stopping intruders when officers cannot — was not released in this case. The reasons are under investigation.

The Secret Service trains its personnel to not shoot intruders on the grounds unless they appear armed or are wearing bulky clothes or backpacks that could indicate they are carrying a bomb. Many questioned how officers can assess the real risk in the 20 seconds it takes someone to run from the fence to the mansion.

Advertisement



‘‘This is totally and wholly unacceptable. . . . How safe is the president if this can happen?’’ said Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. ‘‘I just can’t believe somebody can go that far without being impeded. The perception they are creating is only going to inspire more security breaches.’’

On Friday at about 7:20 p.m., Gonzalez did the unthinkable, authorities said. The 42-year-old from Texas climbed over the north fence line along Pennsylvania Avenue, toward the eastern side of the house’s circular driveway. His breach set off the standard security alarm across the compound. Officers rushed to the North Lawn but were unable to reach him on foot as he ran, threading the needle between the fountain and a security guard booth and ignoring their commands to stop.

Officers at the scene considered Gonzalez to be unarmed and likely mentally disturbed, a law enforcement official familiar with the incident said, and thus a low risk. It turned out Gonzalez was carrying the knife in his pants pocket. One source familiar with the incident said a sniper on scene had Gonzalez in his rifle sights just in case.

Edwin Donovan, spokesman for the Secret Service, said Gonzalez’s ability to get into the executive mansion is ‘‘obviously concerning. . . . What happened here is not acceptable to us, and it’s going to be closely reviewed.’’

Chaffetz said he is not satisfied with the Secret Service’s call for an internal security review and said he fears the agency’s leadership needs an overhaul.

Advertisement



‘‘The Secret Service has a serious management problem, and they have to acknowledge it. This is an agency that cannot make a mistake, ever,’’ he said. “My concern: What if 12 people had jumped over? Then what? That’s not out of the question.’’

Former agents said they fear the breach might be related to a severe staffing shortage the agency has faced in the last year in its Uniform Division.

This is the team of officers with primary responsibility for securing the White House grounds, and the service has been flying in agents from field offices around the country to do temporary assignments. Those agents would have less familiarity with the grounds and intruder response plans.