For the federal agency tasked with protecting the president, it’s embarrassing enough that a man could scale the White House fence and make it well into the executive mansion before being apprehended. But the Secret Service’s defensive response to the incident, including withholding key information about the breach, is a sign of deeper trouble within the agency. The announcement Wednesday that Secret Service Director Julia Pierson had resigned her post and that the Department of Homeland Security will conduct an investigation of the service shows that problems within the agency are being taken seriously. But the review shouldn’t just result in further layers of security around the White House. What’s needed is a reexamination of an internal culture that permitted serious security breaches and a failure of communication with the members of Congress who are supposed to oversee the agency.
On Sept. 19, Omar Gonzalez, a war veteran who is believed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, hopped the fence and ran through the unlocked front door into the first floor of the White House. It wasn’t until Gonzalez was in the East Room, well within the building, that an off-duty Secret Service officer was able to tackle him. But that was not the version of events made available to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform before their Sept. 30 hearing with Pierson. According to a press release, Gonzalez was apprehended “after entering the White House North Portico doors.” Neither the White House nor the service clarified that statement. The service also said that Gonzalez was unarmed; in fact, he had a knife. According to Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, who sits on the panel, the committee was unaware of both of those details before they were reported in The Washington Post.
That incident came on the heels of another security failure, in which an armed private security contractor with three prior assault and battery convictions was allowed to ride in an elevator with President Obama during his Sept. 16 visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Allowing someone with a criminal record, let alone someone who is armed, within arm’s reach of the president is a direct breach of Secret Service protocol. But according to the Post, Obama was not briefed on the incident.
Prior to Pierson’s resignation, the Secret Service announced a number of new security measures, such as an automatic lock on the front door of the White House and the creation of a temporary buffer zone that further separates tourists and pedestrians from the executive mansion. Yet existing procedures, when carried out correctly, were enough to handle more than a dozen other people who scaled the White House fence in the last five years. (They were stopped before they even reached the building.) Gonzalez got in because existing protocols weren’t followed; for instance, an alarm that should have alerted agents to his presence had been muted. The Homeland Security inquest may reveal a need to tweak the rules here or there. But above all, the Secret Service simply needs to carry out current policies — and own up to its failures, before both Congress and the general public.