Omar Gonzalez: Not The First to Penetrate the White House

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After a man identified as Army veteran Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence, news of his act, and those of other trespassers, has sparked serious concern about the security posted on the grounds and within the building itself. It came to light that not only had Gonzalez managed to cross the lawn and enter the building, but that he traversed a great deal of the main floor and subdued a Secret Service officer before he was stopped. This and other similar incidents in the past, in particular this year, have led to a congressional review of the security system in place.

The latest violation

Many on both sides of the aisle have voiced criticism of the job Secret Service Director Julia Pierson and her team have done, leading to a hearing with a House of Representatives oversight committee. “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation today,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), reports The Washington Post.

“Americans know the next attempt to take the White House … could well be a planned attack from a terrorist organization,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “An internal investigation is not sufficient.”

Pierson admitted that a security failure had occurred and that measures would be taken to assess any weaknesses and problems within the defense. “It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed. This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility and I will make sure that it does not happen again,” she said during the House hearing, listing a series of steps planned to prevent further such occurrences. These included a careful examination of the incident, a review of current policy to look for any necessary reforms, and implementation of the changes that are found necessary to “properly ensure the safety and security of the president, and the first family, and the White House.”

However, Issa was not alone in feeling that an investigation is not enough. Concerns are especially relevant in light of the number of attempts made on the perimeter. This was the sixth time in 2014 that a breach of the fence was attempted and the 16th time over the course of the past five years, said Pierson during the hearing, pointing out that each time, the perpetrator was successfully caught and removed.

Adding some perspective

The severity of the concerns and the criticism being pitted against the director require some perspective, though, especially given that the Obama Administration remains supportive of Pierson and the current team. “The president continues to have confidence in their ability to preform their very difficult function,” said Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a briefing over the weekend.

It’s arguable that the administration is taking extra flak for the breach in an attempt to make the current leadership look inept, but realistically, the facts of events do that without the help of House politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans have voiced bipartisan concern.

Another way to gauge the appropriateness of congressional panic is to look at security during other presidents’ time in the Capitol. George W. Bush’s term is a good example given congressional concern about terrorist attacks, that president having faced comparable international events during his tenure.

When Bush was in office in 2000, one man managed to toss a duffel bag over the fence, hop it himself, and slowly jog as far as “Pebble Beach” on the North Lawn before being stopped, according to CNN. In 2005 an Arkansas man climbed over the fence but was quickly apprehended at gunpoint, and a number of items have been tossed over the fence successfully. Yet while the fence may have been breached during his time in office, no intruder ever made it inside the White House.

Other presidents faced considerably more rocky security scares. When Bill Clinton was in office, a man successfully got past the fence with a gun and made it 30 yards from the East Wing before being stopped, according to the BBC. A small plane was crashed into the South Lawn in 1994.

During Ronald Reagan’s second term, a man got into the White House and was inside for a full 15 minutes before being arrested. A number of literal gate crashers have attempted to drive cars into the gate over multiple presidents’ terms, and one army private stole a helicopter and landed it on the White House lawn, unnoticed, in 1974.

Yes, there have been changes to security and policy over the years: security has gotten far more strict as years have passed, and technology and resources have changed to better equip security teams against these kinds of attacks. However, it’s clear that attacks on the White House perimeter and breaches of the fence are hardly novel, and security teams across presidencies have made mistakes.

UPDATE: Following weeks of criticism and a recent Congressional review, not to mention recent security scares that have come to light, Director Julia Pierson is resigning from her position.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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