White House kamikaze

September 15, 1994

There surely was considerable consternation among President Clinton's Secret Service entourage over the apparent ease with which a deranged man bent on suicide managed to crash his two-seat training plane on the White House south lawn early Monday morning. Damage to the building was minimal and the president and his family were never in any danger. But the episode has sparked a noisy debate over the adequacy of White House security measures against airborne threats.

Investigators are still trying to answer key questions. Why, for example, wasn't the Secret Service notified immediately when the plane was picked up on National Airport's air traffic control radars? Early reports suggest the warning was botched by the sort of mindless snafu that is all too predictable in fast-moving, confused situations.

A thorough investigation is warranted, but we would caution against the understandable impulse to overreact. There really may be no sure-fire defense against the kind of low-tech threat represented by a mentally unstable individual who suddenly takes it into his head to use a Cessna 150 to launch a kamikaze attack on the Oval Office.

Pilot Frank Eugene Corder, who was killed in the crash, apparently had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and had been despondent recently over the death of his father and a breakup with his wife. He had even threatened to "check out" in some spectacular stunt at the White House. But no one took the warning seriously enough to report it to authorities.

The elaborate security net around the president is designed by professionals primarily to ward off threats from other professionals -- political assassins and terrorists -- rather than from amateurs of varying degrees of competence or mentally unstable individuals. Ironically, it is the latter who can pose the toughest challenge. Both Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford narrowly escaped death at the hands of deranged people whose unpredictability enabled them to elude security measures.

Monday's attack certainly points up vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. But stinger missiles and machine guns on the White House roof aren't necessarily the answer -- who wants such projectiles whizzing around with a busy commercial airport less than a mile away? Maybe this episode only serves to show that no one, not even a president, can be 100 percent secure in today's world.

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