Secret Service agents should go to the movies more often. At least since the 1996 sci-fi film, “Independence Day,” in which an alien spaceship the size of Los Angeles incinerates the White House, attacks on the lovely old executive mansion have been a recurring cinematic theme.
Last year, two movies with remarkably similar plots featured lone men saving the president and what was left of his official home. In “White House Down,” the hero is a Washington, D.C., cop with aspirations to be a Secret Service agent who fights off a band of domestic terrorists. In “Olympus Has Fallen,” the hero is a desk-bound Secret Service agent who battles a horde of nasty North Koreans. In both films, the villains employ an arsenal of weapons and elaborate tactics to gain entrance to the White House.
Who knew that all they really needed to do was jump the fence and walk through the unlocked front door?
On Wednesday, the director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, turned in her resignation following revelations of several security breaches at the White House and on presidential outings. She quit just a day after being grilled by the always-cinematic Darrell Issa and a supporting cast on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The California Republican and committee chairman wanted to know how Omar Gonzalez, a troubled Army veteran with a knife, got past rings of security and into the Green Room on the first floor of the White House before he was tackled by Secret Service agents.
“An intruder walked in the front door of the White House,” Issa said before hazing Pierson. “That is amazing – and unacceptable.”
Another committee Republican, Utah’s Jason Chaffetz, wanted to know why agents did not simply shoot the guy while he was still outside the mansion. The congressman was frustrated by Pierson’s clinical answers to questions about when agents are authorized to use force. He insisted that the rule should be clear to both agents and would-be invaders: “You make a run and a dash at the White House, we’re going to take you down.”
Both Issa and Chaffetz criticized the agency for lauding the “tremendous restraint” exhibited by the agents who chased the intruder. Clearly, they would prefer Secret Service agents to be more like Channing Tatum and Gerard Butler, the bold, trigger-squeezing action stars of the White House attack movies.
Maybe the response would have been different had the First Family been in residence at the time of the intrusion. Still, the manner in which Gonzalez was taken down is not as troubling as the ease with which he got as far as he did.
I have walked past the White House many times – from my first visit there as a student in the 1970s, when cars could still drive past on Pennsylvania Avenue, through the year I spent working in a newspaper office a block away in the 1990s. I never failed to pause and take a long look at the house and always felt pride that, even in this dangerous world, a close view of the home of the president of the United States remains available to every citizen, even those who come to protest right outside the gate. But I also always assumed that there must be elaborate, unseen security systems in place that would kick in as soon as anyone tried to clamber over the fence.
Apparently, those defenses are more porous than I imagined. Could the problem be simple boredom?
As recent reports indicate, the instincts of airline pilots have become dulled and rusty as the tasks of flying have gotten more and more automated. This has led to dangerous pilot errors in emergency situations. Secret Service agents are not on autopilot, but they spend weeks and months on duty without anything happening that is more alarming than a screaming child on a White House tour. After awhile, the tedium must begin to feel endless. It is no surprise they let their guard down.
And that’s when some nut case jumps the fence and invites himself in.