WASHINGTON (AP) – The Secret Service is boosting security outside the White House following an embarrassing security breach in which an intruder with a knife scaled the White House fence, dashed across the lawn and made it all the way inside before agents managed to stop him.
Increased surveillance and more officer patrols are among the measures that Secret Service Director Julia Pierson has ordered as the elite agency strives to ensure such an incident can’t happen again. Pierson has also launched a full investigation into what went wrong.
Word that a fence-jumper managed to get inside the White House drew reactions of alarm and disbelief about how one of the most heavily secured buildings in the world had been compromised. With questions mounting, President Barack Obama sought to allay concerns about whether the Secret Service is still up to the task of protecting him and his family.
“The president has full confidence in the Secret Service and is grateful to the men and women who day in and day out protect himself, his family and the White House,” White House spokesman Frank Benenati said late Saturday. He said the White House expected Pierson’s review to be conducted “with the same professionalism and commitment to duty that we and the American people expect from the U.S. Secret Service.”
Obama and his daughters had just left the White House by helicopter on Friday evening when the Secret Service says 42-year-old Omar J. Gonzalez hopped over the fence. He ran toward the presidential residence unimpeded, ignoring orders from officers to stop, until being tackled just inside the doors of the North Portico – the grand, columned entrance overlooking Pennsylvania Ave.
“Every day the Secret Service is challenged to ensure security at the White House complex while still allowing public accessibility to a national historical site,” the agency said in a statement Saturday. “Although last night the officers showed tremendous restraint and discipline in dealing with this subject, the location of Gonzalez’s arrest is not acceptable.”
Officials initially said the fact that Gonzalez appeared to be unarmed may have been a factor in why agents at the scene didn’t shoot Gonzalez or sic their dogs on him before he made it inside. But a criminal complaint issued late Friday revealed Gonzalez had a small folding knife with a 3 Â½-inch serrated blade with him at the time of his arrest.
The Secret Service said its Office of Professional Responsibility was carrying out the review, which began with interviews and a physical site assessment and will include a review of all of security and operational policies.
But those assurances were unlikely to satisfy the concerns of those who said the stunning breach marked just the latest in a string of mishaps on the Secret Service’s watch.
“Unfortunately, they are failing to do their job,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “These are good men and women, but the Secret Service leadership has a lot of questions to answer.”
According to a criminal complaint, Gonzalez told Secret Service agents after the arrest that he was “concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing” and needed to contact the president “so he could get word out to the people.”
The breach triggered a rare evacuation of much of the White House. Secret Service agents drew their weapons as they hurried White House staffers and journalists out of the West Wing through a side door.
Gonzalez, of Copperas Cove, Texas, was transported to a nearby hospital after his arrest for evaluation. He was expected to appear in federal court Monday to face charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon.
Less than 24 hours after Gonzalez’s arrest, a second man was apprehended after he drove up to a White House gate and refused to leave, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said, prompting bomb technicians in full gear to search the vehicle as agents briefly shut down nearby streets.
There were no indications the two events were connected. Yet the pair of incidents in short succession only intensified the scrutiny of the Secret Service, which is still struggling to rehabilitate its image following a series of allegations of misconduct by agents in recent years, including agents on Obama’s detail.
Once open to vehicles, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was confined to pedestrians after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, but officials have been reluctant to restrict access to the area further.
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