"The Secret Service should be impenetrable, but its defenses - and excuses - are full of holes"
Recent incompetence by the president's protective agency reveals a need for drastic and immediate changes
When 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder, scaled a fence and made it into the White House, he could not have known his intrusion would become emblematic of the troubling failures of an agency, which, given its task, should never falter.
The recent security breach at the White House ended up breaking open the floodgates on the Secret Service’s competency, transparency and management.
The ease with which Gonzalez entered the White House – he entered via a mistakenly unlocked door, made it through a foyer and into the East Room, passing by the staircase to the Obama family residence on his way – and the difficulty with which officers eventually apprehended him is indicative of a multifaceted breakdown of security at a location that should be the safest in the nation.
But throughout President Obama’s term, the Secret Service has failed to secure the building on multiple occasions. In 2009, reality television hopefuls Tareq and Michaele Salah managed to sneak past two security checkpoints to attend a White House state dinner and socialize with the president vice president and chief of staff – all despite their absence from the guest list.
Two years later, a gunman struck the White House with at least seven bullets and despite an initially appropriate response – an agent drew her weapon and snipers checked over the White House lawn through their riflescopes – a supervisor concluded the noise had been a construction vehicle backfiring.
It wasn’t until a housekeeper noticed broken glass and cement on the floor that the Secret Service realized the White House had indeed been under attack – four days after shots were fired.
Exacerbating an already deeply serious problem are the revelations of dishonesty throughout the agency, as officials’ attempts to downplay the severity of the most recent security breach come to light.
As detailed by The New Yorker, the Secret Service’s initial report stated Gonzalez “was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors.” This suggests despite the failure to tackle Gonzalez on the lawn, or release attack dogs, the intruder was brought to a halt as soon as he entered the White House.
In reality, Gonzalez made it through doors at the North Portico and almost all the way to the South Portico before his apprehension.
Further incompetence – a phrase which should never be used to describe an agency tasked with protecting the president – and further attempts to hide said errors, became apparent in official accounts: Gonzalez was able to overpower a Secret Service officer and an alarm was silenced to accommodate people nearby who were irritated by the sound.
As if the extent of this security breach, and previous failures, the agency also finds itself rocked by a revived prostitution scandal – a 2012 report alleged that agents hired a prostitute while in Colombia prior to the president’s visit there – as the increasing scrutiny on the agency’s questionable actions makes it more difficult to dismiss allegations that were once easily resolved.
The Secret Service wasn’t so named because its agents relied on deception to mask incompetence and scandal. But as tales of internal strife and cover-ups continue to make it into the headlines, the moniker seems apt for all the wrong reasons.