No excuse for error
The U.S. Secret Service has had a bad run in the past couple of years, and failures in recent weeks have only added to the poor record.
Wholesale changes in the agency’s culture are in order.
The most important assignment for the Secret Service is to protect the president and other key American officials.
When protection procedures break down, we need to know why, and steps need to be taken to prevent future failures.
Secret Service director Julia Pierson resigned a day after she was called before a congressional committee to answer questions about how an intruder on Sept. 19 was able to sprint deep into the White House first floor rooms before an off-duty officer tackled him.
The intruder, armed with a folding knife, scaled the north fence, ran unchallenged across the lawn (guard dogs were not unleashed), entered the White House through two sets of unlocked front doors (alarms had been turned off), overpowered a guard and ran past the stairway to the First Family’s living quarters on the second floor, and to the entrance into the Green Room on the south side of the building.
At that point, the off-duty Secret Service agent, who just happened to be walking through the halls, took him down, and the intruder was then taken into custody.
The agent was not assigned to White House duty, and was there only by coincidence.
The Obama family was on their way to Camp David in Maryland at the time of the incident.
At first, the Secret Service officially reported that the unwanted visitor was stopped inside the front door, but that story proved to be false when director Pierson testified differently to the committee. Her testimony revealed other security threats, including an incident in recent years in which someone fired several shots at the White House.
The White House intruder, Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran, had been arrested for reckless driving in Virginia in July.
His car was found to contain 11 guns, many of them semiautomatics with scopes, together with a map of Washington showing a marked route to the White House. Officers confiscated the guns.
Then a few weeks later, Gonzalez was stopped outside the south fence of the White House carrying a hatchet in his belt. But, apparently, he was not questioned closely by the local officers, nor was the information turned over to the Secret Service.
After his arrest following the intrusion on Sept. 19, a search of his vehicle turned up 800 rounds of ammunition and several machetes.
The entire incident — and the series of procedural failures in connection with it — show a need for deep and thorough investigations into the culture of the Secret Service.
It was the latest embarrassment and potentially dangerous foul-up involving the agency.
In 2012, a dozen Secret Service agents were sent home from Cartagena, Colombia, after they were found with prostitutes in their hotel rooms. Not long after that, two agents were sent home from the Netherlands for being drunk while preparing for the arrival of the president.
During questioning after he was taken into custody following the White House intrusion, Gonzalez claimed he needed to talk to the president because the atmosphere was falling down and people needed to be warned about it.
He is the latest in a sad series of mentally disturbed persons who have posed threats to American presidents over the years.
But whether their illness absolves them of criminality or not, the threats from such people are real.
America has lost four presidents through assassination — Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Eighteen other presidents have been threatened in serious plots or in actual attempted killings.
Since Kennedy’s assassination, every president except Lyndon Johnson has sustained attempts of some kind on his life.
Some of the plots and attacks have been stopped by the Secret Service. Most of them have been foiled by law officers, bystanders, or just plain luck.
Would-be assassins, in addition to mentally disturbed individuals, have included extreme right-wingers, extreme left-wingers, disgruntled job-seekers, anarchists, foreign agitators and terrorists, publicity seekers and others.
No doubt most Secret Service agents are loyal, serious public servants performing a demanding and no-nonsense job.
But unlike most occupations, there’s very little room for error in the Secret Service.
It’s not enough just to declare the failings “not acceptable.”
Those who let down their guard should be relieved of duty, and that goes for management as well.