Government & Politics

Gonzalez the Amazing Fence Jumper Highlights Shift in White House Values

After several high-profile security failures, it's evident the Secret Service needs reform.

Oct. 1, 2014

On Sept. 26, Omar Gonzalez jumped the fence of the White House – now one of the most secure facilities in the world – and made a fool of the Secret Service, the model for diplomatic protection agencies. Gonzalez was finally stopped by an off duty agent, who just happened to pass through the East Room.

After James Garfield was assassinated in 1881, the next president, Chester Arthur, did nothing to boost security at the White House, which was almost nonexistent at the time. Once, to travel to the Washington Navy Yard, Arthur walked from the White House and used public transportation to get there.

Much has changed between the times of Chester Arthur and Barack Obama. The threats against the executive office have grown, and so has the role of the Secret Service. After several high-profile security failures, it’s evident the Secret Service needs reform. And the answer to how it will be reformed will further define the role of the presidency and the Secret Service.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson told the House Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday, “I take full responsibility. What happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again.”

Update: It definitely won’t happen on her watch, as she tendered her resignation Wednesday afternoon. Now she’s in the record books with two firsts: First woman to lead the Secret service, and first member of the Obama government to take responsibility for her failures.

She told the committee she has worked for the last 18 months to reform the service. But the scandals continue to roll. In 2012, Secret Service agents romped with prostitutes in Cartagena and stumbled into their hotel drunk in the Netherlands. The Washington Post reported the Secret Service bungled its response in 2011 when a man took aim with a semiautomatic rifle and hit the White House seven times. On Sept. 16, unbeknownst to the Secret Service, Obama took an elevator ride with an armed felon.

When Gonzalez sprinted onto the White House lawn, about five layers of security should have snapped into place. The Secret Service should have released an attack dog. It should have locked the front door. Instead, the White House’s equivalent of a good guy passerby with a gun stopped the intruder.

The recent history of the Secret Service shows an organization in dangerous dereliction of duty. Trust in the organization has broken. To fix the problem, the service may ask for more money or boost the show of security around the White House. But the heart of the organization, its people and its discipline, will still be rotten.

White House security will always have its challenges because of tourism and the historical nature of the building, according to former Secret Service Director W. Ralph Basham. It wasn’t until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that political urgency led security to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the building. Basham said the White House fence presents a similar security weakness.

The White House could have more security, but at a cost of the very values it symbolizes. “The Service has to ensure that the President, other protectees, and the facilities in which they work and live are safe and secure,” Basham said, “but they do so in the context of important American values like freedom and openness. … [T]hat security must be accomplished in a way that does not jeopardize the very values that we seek to protect.”

Until the turn of the 20th century, presidents were considered the “first citizens of the Republic” and had little protection. A 1965 report after the assassination of John F. Kennedy recounts a short history of presidential protection. The report tells how Andrew Jackson – even though an aspiring assassin fired a brace of pistols at him in 1835 – would send the threatening letters he received to the Washington Globe so they could be published.

The Secret Service began to officially protect the president in 1902, as a wave of anarchist terrorism was creeping into the United States. On Sept. 2, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and killed William McKinley.

The 1965 report recorded both the escalating danger and the reluctance of Washington to protect the president. Abraham Lincoln was evidently “reluctant to surround himself with guards and often rejected protection or sought to slip away from it.” In fact, according to the report, “This has been characteristic of almost all American Presidents. They have regarded protection as a necessary affliction at best and contrary to their normal instincts for either personal privacy or freedom to meet the people.”

In response to Gonzalez’s fence breech, the Secret Service erected a second fence they say is “temporary.”

“Absent a comprehensive understanding of the foundational issues that led to systematic failures,” Todd Keil, former special agent for the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, told the House, “throwing more money and people at the problem will only exacerbate existing management weaknesses and compound and magnify rather than correct management challenges.”

Keil called for an independent review of the fence-hopping incident and organization as a whole, free from internal bias. And such a review is appropriate. This organization protects visiting dignitaries, keeps presidential candidates from harm, and is the last line of defense against an assassin bent on striking the leader of the free world.

But it’s hard to imagine what the Founders would think of the world today, where the first citizen of the Republic needs a second fence and snipers on his roof.

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