The fence-jumper who got into the White House continues to make waves in Washington, even from behind bars. A new report shows the Secret Service had attention failures, improper procedures, and faulty assumptions in play that day which nearly led to the unthinkable at the (presumably) most secured residence in America. CNN’s Michelle Kosinski explains the broad strokes of the failure cascade detailed in a new review of the incident, which makes the elite security service look more like the Keystone Kops, only not nearly as amusing:
The Washington Post digs into the details:
Layer after layer of security measures that were supposed to block an intruder from getting into the White House all failed in stunning succession on the evening of Sept. 19, according to an internal review of a fence jumper’s breach.
There were nearly a dozen failures in the Secret Service’s rings of security that helped Omar Jose Gonzalez, 42, get inside the White House and deep into the East Room, according to a Department of Homeland Security review, a summary of which was obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.
In one example, a canine handler who was supposed to help chase down and tackle anyone who breached the White House compound was in a van on a personal cellphone call at the time and did not hear any radio traffic about a fence jumper. By the time he and his well-trained attack dog arrived, Gonzalez was already entering the White House front door, the review found.
In another failure, a crisis command center officer who thought he was alerting everyone to an intruder that Friday night didn’t realize his radio wasn’t working properly — meaning his alert was not being broadcast to officers stationed at the White House. Some alarms were also muted.
The end result: Many Secret Service officers were slow to realize that a person had jumped the fence, and then weren’t sure where he was. Construction on the north grounds obscured many officers’ views, further hampering their ability to spot trouble and respond.
The report is curious on a couple of points. First, an emergency communications system appears to have been ignored or non-functional, which is a strange thing indeed for something that’s explicitly designed for the kind of unusual circumstance for which security is needed in the first place:
Two of the supervisory officers directed the others to activate an emergency communication system to alert the Joint Operations Center and other posts. The Joint Operations Center, however, was unaware that this system was activated until after the incident.
How did that happen? Do they test these systems and drill security forces on their use and meaning? A JOC exists to keep watch for these kinds of alerts, no? Then there’s this:
Both Officers ran toward Gonzalez with their rifles pointed at him, but determined that lethal force was inappropriate because Gonzalez did not appear to be armed.
Er, what? Unless Gonzalez was naked, there’s no way to make that definitive determination while chasing a suspect, especially in twilight (after 7:19 pm). And actually, Gonzalez was armed with a knife and making his way into the White House through an unlocked front door. Instead of being a disturbed man with a knife, though, what if Gonzalez had turned out to have a pistol? Or, perhaps, a jihadi wearing suicide-bomber vest launching a lone-wolf attack on the President and the command center of the executive branch?
At that point, Gonzalez had reached the bushes near the North Portico, which the Secret Service had assumed were impenetrable:
The Officer followed Gonzalez into the bushes, but lost sight of him as Gonzalez passed through the bushes and ran up the stairs to the White House’s North Portico entrance. At the time of the incident, both Emergency Response Team Officers were surprised that Gonzalez was able to get through the bushes; prior to that evening, the Officers believed the bushes too thick to be passable.
You just knew they’d find a way to blame bush, right?
The not-armed assumption happens again as Gonzalez emerged from the supposedly impassable bushes:
The Officer observed Gonzalez exit the bushes and run up the stairs. The Officer pointed his weapon at Gonzalez, put his finger on the trigger, and ordered him to get down. Gonzalez did not obey, but the Officer did not see any indication that Gonzalez was armed or presented a threat warranting the use of lethal force.
Again — assumed facts not in evidence, and besides, man running into White House while ignoring commands to stop. He wasn’t going there to catch up with the tour. Of course, the agent also assumed that the Secret Service had the front doors locked, which … was just a number of very bad assumptions.
On the inside, meanwhile …
The Officer stationed inside the White House near the Portico doors, seated in a chair next to a window, heard unintelligible noise on her radio. She looked out the window and saw the Officer right outside next to a pillar with his gun drawn. The Officer did not hear the activation of the emergency communication system and was unaware that the system at her post was muted.
So, just to be clear, no one’s listening to the emergency communication system, the doors are unlocked, and the alarms are muted. On the plus side, I’m sure there’s a “NO TRESPASSING” sign somewhere on the property.
The “Communications” section for the report’s conclusions have to be read to be believed, emphases mine:
During the September 19, 2014 incident, several USSS communications systems experienced failures that prevented relevant personnel from receiving notification of the fence jumper. A combination of technical missteps, lack of radio discipline, improper use of equipment, and aging infrastructure contributed to communications failures on the date of the incident that delayed notification to key Officers. The primary handheld radios relied upon by USSS Officers at the White House did not provide real-time notification as intended, in part because individuals using the radio talked at the same time and overrode each other’s transmissions. After the incident, it was learned that an improper setting on the radio system also prevented the Joint Operations Center from centrally overriding all communications and pushing notification of a fence jumper out to the relevant Officers. Additionally, the Officers who activated the emergency communication system during the incident [failed] to provide details of the incident over the system, key posts inside the White House had “muted” emergency communication system receivers, and Emergency Response Team personnel stationed in vehicles only had radio communications to maintain situational awareness. Finally, although all the appropriate alarms were triggered by Gonzalez’s movement through the North Grounds, not all the posts received that information.
So too for the section covering the operational response:
In addition to the overarching findings discussed elsewhere in this summary, several factors specific to the September 19, 2014 incident affected the USSS response that evening: the ongoing construction that limited visibility and may have aided Gonzalez’s ability to get over the fence as quickly as he did; the Emergency Response Team’s reliance on the canine unit and erroneous belief that the bushes were an impassable barrier; the effect of inadequate information, poor visibility, and other factors; the tactical response of USSS Officers at the scene; and the lack of an automated locking mechanism for the White House doors.
The White House has been in the same location for more than 200 years. The Secret Service has had the responsibility to secure the location for more than a century. And yet in all that time, no one thought to test the assumption that the bushes would stop an intruder, or to install a remotely-activated locking system for the White House door, a technology that goes back decades. Even those security systems that are installed are either ignored or disabled.
This is an utter disaster, thankfully one that didn’t cost anyone’s life inside the White House. The next one won’t end as fortunately, unless the Secret Service cleans up its act in more ways than one.