The Secret Service is getting an ass-chewing today on Capitol Hill after it was learned that the man who jumped the White House fence this month and sprinted through the front door made it much farther into the building than previously known, overpowering one Secret Service officer and running through much of the main floor, according to three people familiar with the incident. An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through. Officers are trained that, upon learning of an intruder on the grounds — often through the alarm boxes posted around the property — they must immediately lock the front door. After barreling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses. Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.
Secret Service officials had earlier said he was quickly detained at the main entry. Agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said the office is not commenting during the ongoing investigation of the incident. Breaches of the White House fence have become more common, but most jumpers are tackled by Secret Service officers guarding the complex before they get even a third of the way across the lawn. Gonzalez is the first person known to have jumped the fence and made it inside the executive mansion. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson has said the breach was “unacceptable” to her, and on Friday she briefed President Obama on her plans to shore up security. Pierson is expected to face tough questions about the Gonzalez incident Tuesday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The hearing is likely to cover a number of security lapses by the agency, including new revelations published over the weekend by The Washington Post about the failure to identify and properly investigate a 2011 shooting attack on the White House.
The more detailed account of this month’s security breach comes from people who provided information about the incident to The Post and whistleblowers who contacted Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the oversight panel’s subcommittee on national security. Chaffetz said he plans to ask Pierson how an alarm meant to alert officers to intruders could be silenced or turned down. The congressman said two people inside the agency told him that boxes were silenced because the White House usher staff, whose office is near the front door, complained that they were noisy. A Secret Service official told The Post that the usher’s office was concerned the boxes were frequently malfunctioning and unnecessarily sounding off.
The alarm boxes, which officers call “crash boxes,” are key pieces of the agency’s first-alert system, according to former agents and officials. If officers spot an intruder, they are trained to hit the large red button on the nearest box — sending an alert to every post on the complex about the location of an incursion and piping sound from that location to other boxes around the property. “If true, the fact that crash boxes were muted to avoid being ‘disruptive’ is not due to a lack of resources or an insufficient number of checkpoints or barriers,” Chaffetz said. He called the incident a “failure of leadership” by the Secret Service. “The agency needs a solution that goes deeper than more fences and more people,” Chaffetz said. “It must examine what message is being sent to the men and women who protect the president when their leader sacrifices security to appease superficial concerns of White House ushers.”
The new revelations follow accounts provided to The Washington Post last week detailing how Gonzalez’s ability to enter the White House reflected a failure of multiple levels of security at the compound. The agency relies on these successive layers as a fail-safe for protecting the president and the White House complex. In this incident, a plainclothes surveillance team was on duty that night outside the fence, meant to spot jumpers and give early warning before they made it over. But that team did not notice Gonzalez. There was an officer in a guard booth on the North Lawn. When that officer could not reach Gonzalez, there was supposed to be an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door — all at the ready. The dog was not released, a decision now under review. Some people familiar with the incident say the handler probably felt he could not release the dog, because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez and the dog may have attacked them instead. Since the incident, the Secret Service has added an additional layer of temporary fencing while the agency reviews its procedures.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said Tuesday that she takes “full responsibility” for several high-profile security failures at the White House in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly. I take full responsibility; what happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again,” Pierson said in her opening remarks to the committee, which addressed a security breach on Sept. 19. A 42-year-old Texas man, Omar J. Gonzalez, was able to scale the White House fenceand enter the front doors of the building, which were apparently unlocked. On Monday, CBS News reported that Gonzalez ran through the main entrance and all the way into the East Room before he was apprehended, contrary to initial reports from the Secret Service that he was caught just inside the North Portico doors.
Pierson said Tuesday that Gonzalez was arrested “on the state floor” of the White House. Immediately afterward, she ordered security enhancements around the White House grounds and began conducting a full review of the incident at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. She said she is committed to a “complete and thorough investigation of the facts” around the security breach, a review of the policies, procedures and protocols that govern the security of the White House complex and a coordinated effort to make any adjustments necessary for the president’s security. Pierson also addressed the larger string of failures the Secret Service has seen in recent years. “I recognize that these events did not occur in a vacuum. The Secret Service has had its share of challenges in recent years – some during my tenure and some before – of which this is the most recent. I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform, the important individuals we protect, and the American people we serve,” she said.
Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa. R-Calif., said in his opening statement that he wants to probe “whether the culture at the Secret Service and declining morale have impacted operational security.” “We will be asking tough questions today,” he promised. “Whether deficient procedures, insufficient training, personnel shortages, or low morale contributed to the incident, this can never happen again. We simply cannot allow it.” “This is a serious and troubling breakdown of security. The Secret Service’s core missions it to protect not just the president, but the 18 acres that the White House sits on,” said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate, a former official in the Bush administration, on “CBS This Morning.” “This is a very serious moment for the Secret Service, a crisis of confidence, if you will.” Additionally, the the Washington Post reported Sunday that it took Secret Service agents four days to realize a man had fired bullets that struck the White House in 2011. “I don’t see people being held accountable and I don’t see changes that make the security situation better, so part of [the hearing] is to discuss the perimeter at the White House but I think the problems are much deeper seated than that,” committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told CBS News over the weekend. “There are other incidents that we might talk about but we’re also going to reach back during her tenure to review what has happened and not happened.”