On the heels of the Washington Post’s revelation that the armed man who scaled the White House fence earlier this month not only entered the executive mansion but bolted past a guard and into the East Room, the Secret Service has come under fire once again.
According to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, President Obama was “obviously concerned” about the September 19 perimeter breach – and in a rare moment of accord, the Republican-controlled House share his concern.
Today, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will grill Secret Service Director Julia Pierson about the agency’s repeated lapses. Here's seven questions lawmakers are likely to ask:
1. Why the lack of transparency?Yesterday’s revelations don’t exactly square with the agency’s original explanation, which seemed to imply that the 42-year-old fence jumper, Omar Gonzalez, had been apprehended just inside the entrance.
The day after the incident, the Secret Service released a statement saying simply, “Gonzalez failed to comply with responding Secret Service Uniformed Division Officers’ verbal commands, and was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors.”
2. Didn’t Gonzalez’s erratic history raise a red flag?Secret Service investigators interviewed Gonzalez, an Iraq vet, at least twice before he stormed into the White House on September 19.
Two months before the incident, authorities in Virginia discovered a sawed-off shotgun and a map marking the White House stashed in Gonzalez’s car. They confiscated the weapons but concluded he wasn’t a threat to the president. And about a month later, officers spotted Gonzales wandering along the south fence with a hatchet in his waistband. They determined they didn’t have enough evidence to hold him.
Gonzalez’s motives aren’t clear: Though he had armed himself with 3 ½ inch knife, he claims his only intent was to warn the president that the “atmosphere was collapsing.” Still, the fact that a man repeatedly flagged by Secret Service managed to make it so far into what was once considered most secure residence in the nation is troubling.
3. Why didn’t agents fire?The Secret Service Uniformed Division supposedly maintains “five rings” of protection to create a secure perimeter around the executive mansion. But it was a counterassault agent inside – an agent who was never supposed to come face-to-face with a would-be fence jumper – who eventually subdued Gonzalez.
The first apparent failure came at the North Gate, where a plainclothes surveillance team posted outside the gate failed to notice Gonzalez clambering over the eight-foot fence.
Then, in quick succession, a guard booth officer, SWAT team, and K-9 unit all failed to respond.
According to the Associated Press, agents decided to hold their fire when they (incorrectly) assessed that Gonzalez wasn’t carrying weapons, nor was he wearing clothing that could easily conceal explosives.
They allowed Gonzales to dart into the White House, which had been vacated by the first family just minutes before.
4. Why didn’t they release the dogs?The K-9 unit, a team of Belgian Malinois dogs trained to attack intruders, was also not deployed.
Sources say officers were afraid the dogs would attack the officers pursuing Gonzalez instead of the intruder himself.
5. Why wasn’t the door secured?Gonzales didn’t have to force the front door or pick the lock. It wasn't locked.
Secret Service agents generally wait for notice of an intruder to lock the front door – but the officer guarding the entrance on September 19 wasn’t aware of a fence jumper until he was almost upon her.
Gonzales dashed past her and ran past the entrance to the first family’s private quarters and into the ceremonial East Room on the first floor.
6. Why is the Secret Service taking direction from hospitality staff?According to the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, someone had apparently muted a “crash box” alarm designed to alert officers of intruders – at the behest of the usher’s office.
Apparently, the alarm frequently went off without provocation, disturbing the staff. Even so, some lawmakers are chiding the agency for disabling the crash box “to appease superficial concerns of White House ushers.”