The recent security breach at the White House has a lot of Washington and the nation talking. A man jumped the White House fence, sprinted across the North Lawn and made it inside the front door of the President’s residence (with a knife in his pocket) before being apprehended by U.S. Secret Service. The penetration was wholly unacceptable, but what has been impressive to me is the very public pushback by members of the media and the general public to further restricting public access to what has been called by every President, “the People’s House.”
After living in the DC area for nearly three decades, I would call it fairly standard practice that anytime there is a newly revealed terrorist tactic or incident, a new type of security tactic is revealed. After the suicide truck bomb attack was revealed in the early ‘80s, huge concrete planters and jersey walls went in around the White House and U.S. Capitol complex. After the Oklahoma City truck bomb went off at the Murrah Federal Building in April 1995, security bollards went up around federal buildings around the United States, and the Secret Service was successful in having its nearly decade-long request granted to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the North face of the White House. From that point on, this section in front of the White House has been everything from a park, a plaza for protests of all type, a place to eat your lunch, a place for news media to shoot video spots, and a place where tourists from around the world gather to have their photos taken, all while looking for a glimpse of the First Family.
Despite these efforts and the ever-public presence of uniformed Secret Service and other law enforcement personnel, the White House has still had security breaches. From a person armed with an assault rifle firing upon it, a plane crashing onto the South Lawn, an errant DC commuter whose drive through the city had him inadvertently join a security motorcade with the President’s child in it, and fence jumpers of all type – including recently a child who squeezed his way through the fence. (Fortunately, the child only got a stern talking to and a “timeout” by his parents and the Secret Service.)
None of these incidents are trivial or a joking matter. They represent a serious breach of operations in a critically important part of our government – protecting our leaders from harm while ensuring the continuity of government. The public has been more than patient in understanding many of the measures the Secret Service takes to protect the First Family. People understand there are bad people (as well as kooks) who if given the opportunity would render harm to our leaders, but people are also becoming more cognizant of the “security theater” that is often on display.
If you live in the DC area, you’ve probably been stuck in traffic courtesy of a motorcade. The procession could be relatively quick (a rarity) or more often than not a drawn out procession of black sedans and SUVs, ambulances, vans and buses all going somewhere while you’re stuck in traffic knowing you are never going to make it in time to pick up your child for a practice/rehearsal/event. The hassle of a motorcade is not just something we have in DC. Look at NYC during the meetings of the UN General Assembly and the havoc that causes for drivers, commuters and pedestrians alike. Even cities that host the major political conventions every four years or large international summits where world leaders converge on an American city for high-level talks and photo ops find themselves shutdown from normal activity so something “special” can occur.
Most of the security put in place for those efforts is understandable and defendable, but in looking at the most recent episode of the security breach at the White House and rumors of the Secret Service wanting to expand the security perimeter further, people have had enough of being cordoned off and told to step away from property and lifestyles that are uniquely American.
Recent columns by several Washington Post writers (notably Dana Milbank and Petula Dvorak) have looked at the causes that allowed the breach to occur, including serious budget and staffing issues, but it all simply comes down to this – the Secret Service on duty that night failed to do their job.
Failure in a job like theirs can have catastrophic consequences – especially when concerns about terrorism from external forces and the inspired, homegrown, lone wolf kind are at higher level than they’ve been in some time. For as important as a comprehensive security review should be, so should the ability of the public to still have some type of access to the White House property.
Today, the White House complex is a fortress where public tours are limited and not too easy to come by. Additionally, a walk around the immediate perimeter has lots of visibly armed security officers and trained dogs, plenty of surveillance cameras and police vehicles, and numerous security stations all at the ready. Or so we thought…
If the Secret Service does not have the trained manpower or resources to do their jobs, they need to push back on the DHS leadership, the White House and the Congress to say so. Budget sequestration has had a lot of impacts across the federal government, but when it risks the safety of our leadership, common sense would dictate that even the most partisan of foes could find common ground and resources to safeguard the Executive Branch and others who need immediate protection.
But using the latest security breach as an excuse to further expand the security footprint of what is a publicly owned fortress, when you don’t fulfill the responsibilities you were assigned, should not be allowed.
Does the White House fence need raised beyond its current 7 feet, 6 inches? I would say yes.
Should the entire security operation for the complex be given a comprehensive (but classified) audit? Hell yes! That should happen every couple of years without hesitation, but for the first time that I can recall, there seems to be a growing public pushback on over-securitizing the White House from its current status.
As someone who has the fortune to take my lunch at one of the park benches across from the White House or pass through the park on my way to a meeting a couple of blocks away, I enjoy having access to the area. It also is refreshing to see tourists, cameramen and reporters, as well as protestors, all using the property for their own individual and expressive purposes. All of those things are part of a uniquely American experience. Cordoning the area off even further takes those rights, experiences and abilities away.
I know a number of security people who would love to see the entire White House area cordoned off entirely. While I believe in effective and prudent security measures to safeguard the President and his family, putting the People’s House further away from the people who built it and truly own it is neither effective nor prudent. I’m glad people are giving voice to that.
All it takes is for highly trained and qualified people to do the job they were hired to do in the first place (and have the resources to execute it), and we won’t have the situation unfold that we are now shaking our heads over.
Fessing up to those facts quickly allows remedies to be put in place and freedoms preserved. In the end isn’t that what all of us want?