On Friday evening, 42 year-old Omar Gonzalez of Copperas Cove, Texas jumped the fence at the White House, and managed to run all the way into the North Portico doors of the residence before he was detained by Secret Service. The mad dash has stunned members of the White House press, as NBC News' Kristen Welker reported:
Welker is correct, this lapse is, indeed, stunning, especially for anyone even passingly familiar with the unnerving security procedures at the White House. Before you even get onto the grounds of the White House, there are uniformed Secret Service everywhere who will jack you up for even looking at the fence the wrong way. It's no secret, either, that there are a number of snipers on the roof in addition to the uniformed and non-uniformed agents who patrol and guard the grounds. Then, there are the counter-measures that no one is allowed to talk about, whatever those are. It would have surprised no one if Gonzalez had been swallowed up by a Tantalus Field on his way across the North Lawn.
Welker is wrong, though, that evacuation of the press has never happened. I was at the White House at least one other time that happened, in April of 2009. It was at the very start of what would become the heavily influential Tea Party movement, and we got word that a "suspicious object" had been thrown onto the North Lawn. All the press were evacuated out of the west side of the White House, and Pennsylvania Ave. was closed to pedestrian traffic for several hours.
As it turns out, the suspicious object was a box of tea bags that, thankfully, didn't come close to detonating, but the immediate change in security posture for such a mundane "threat" is characteristoc of the vigilance we've come to expect from the Secret Service. Even reporters and network crewmembers are not above being jacked up if they photograph the wrong thing. At my very first White House press conference, which was also President Obama's, NBC News' then-Political Director Chuck Todd was trying to re-enter the White House (after he had already been there all day), but he wasn't on the secret Service's list. Here's how that worked out:
Chuck only got in that day because a West Wing staffer came up and vouched for him.
This is also why no one in the White House press bought the story that the Secret Service was responsible for the infamous state dinner party crashers. They fell on the sword, but it's pretty much a given that someone from the East Wing staff must have waved them in.
That someone made it all the way to the North Portico is beyond stunning, and someone will surely be neck-deep very soon, as a result. There are two things to consider, however, when deciding how worried we ought to be by this. There's one thing that all of the above incidents have in common that Gonzalez' race to infamy does not: President Obama was at the White House in each of them. The Secret Service has a baseline setting for vigilance, but it ramps up considerably when the president is around, and even more for events like major press conferences, state dinners, and visits by world leaders. The Gonzalez incident is concerning because, even in the president's absence, the People's House was still theoretically vulnerable to, say, a suicide bomb. Again, there are so many uniformed Secret Service and police around the White House that even that concern is minor, but it is probably to Gonzalez' benefit that the president was not on the grounds. If he had been, the response could have been very different, and the outcome much sadder.
There's another reason to believe that breach is likely to be a one-off. The fence around the North Lawn of the White House is currently undergoing repairs, and a very sturdy-looking temporary fence is now in use. Here's the section of the original fence that's under repair:
And here's the temporary fence that's currently in use:
The temporary fence is actually higher, and the spikes at the top are impalier, than the permanent fence, but as you can see, the base is also considerably higher. That creates a vulnerability in the spots where the temporary fence joins the old one, making it considerably easier to vault the fence. Hopefully, the Secret Service have now identified this vulnerability (I'm sure they're avid Daily Banter readers), and are working to correct it as we speak.
Bonus: As I was looking for that photo of Pennsylvania Ave. being closed after the tea bag attack, I came across an old piece of footage that I never used. After they evacuated us from the White House, I made my way around to the entrance of Lafayette Park, where the first-ever Tax Day Tea Party Protest had been going on. Having heard a rumor that the suspicious object was a bo of tea bags, I cleverly got several cops to confirm this by asking if they'd caught the guy who threw the tea bags. Then, I came across Fox News' Griff Jenkins, who was setting up for a live shot on the "suspicious package" that had caused the park to be evacuated, as well. For the first time ever, here's that footage:
Image credit: Instagram