Don't shut off the White House [Editorial]

Our view: Heads should roll over last weekend's security breach at the president's residence, but it shouldn't come at the cost of further restricting public access to the site

September 23, 2014

There's simply no excuse for the Secret Service to have allowed an apparently deranged man to vault over the White House fence on Friday then sprint across the lawn and actually enter the president's residence through an unlocked door before he was tackled and apprehended. Heads should roll for a breach of security of this magnitude at what ought to be one of the country's most heavily guarded facilities. But it shouldn't come at the expense of the public's access to a historic site that symbolizes the nation's tradition of open governance and accountability to the citizens it serves.

The fence-jumper was identified as Omar Jose Gonzales, a 42-year-old Texas man who was described by a family member as an Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. How he managed to penetrate the White House security perimeter and make it inside the building under the noses of the uniformed Secret Service security detail remains something of a mystery. Under questioning, he reportedly told investigators that he had entered the building in order to deliver an urgent warning to President Obama that the atmosphere was failing.

Secret Service Director Julia A. Pierson, who took over the agency's top job 18 months ago after another scandal involving a dozen agents bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms during a presidential trip to Colombia in 2012, said afterward that officers detain about 60 people a year they suspect might threaten the president, many of whom exhibit signs of mental illness. Although Mr. Gonzales was carrying only a small pocketknife when he entered the White House, agents who searched his car afterward found 800 rounds of ammunition along with two hatchets and a machete.

Mr. Gonzales shouldn't have been a stranger to the Secret Service in any case. In July he was arrested in Wythe County, Va., near Blacksburg, while carrying a cache of firearms along with a map with a line pointing to the White House, and in August Secret Service officers saw him near the south fence of the building carrying a hatchet in the waistband of his pants. At that point, under agency procedures, the officers who stopped him should have checked against an agency database showing whether he had a record of arrests or of having made threats against the president. Instead, somebody screwed up and Mr. Gonzales was released without charges.

Nor was the agency ignorant of the White House's security weaknesses. A 1991 study found it could be breached by six to eight attackers climbing over the fence at the same time. As it turned out, it took only one, and former agents say the facility is still vulnerable despite the creation of specially trained counter-assault and surveillance teams recommended in the report, a shortcoming they attributed to cost-cutting efforts that have left the agency understaffed and morale low over pay and overtime issues.

None of those reasons, however, account for the apparent ease with which Mr. Gonzales was able to penetrate the security cordon around the White House. Why, for example, did the snipers posted on the grounds hold their fire after Mr. Gonzales jumped the fence, and why weren't the dogs trained to knock down intruders released by their handlers? For that matter, why didn't uniformed security agents see the intruder before he reached the White House's door, and why on earth was that door ever left unlocked? It's impossible not to conclude that either complacency or a certain amount of incompetence may also have been involved.

This summer a toddler slipped between bars of the fence surrounding the White House and briefly wandered the grounds before being apprehended by agents and returned to his parents. One would think that might have been a tipoff that security around the building wasn't all it should be.

We expect there will be a thorough investigation into what went wrong, including congressional hearings in the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on homeland security, whose chairman, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, publicly wondered over the weekend whether the administration was taking the problem with the seriousness it deserved. "It really scares me," he said.

Scary or not, however, the incident must not become an excuse for further restricting the public's access to the White House and surrounding area, which already have seen the closing of nearby streets and the erection of concrete barricades in response to the threat of terrorist attacks. Keeping the area open to the public, including the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the city every year, is symbolic of the openness of our form of government, and while changing times obviously require adjustments to meet the changing nature of potential threats, that is one thing that shouldn't.


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