Can Keystone Kops really keep President Obama safe?

A man with a knife gets into the White House while an armed thug gets to ride in a lift with Obama

Charles Laurence

EDITOR'S NOTE at 11.55pm on 1 October: Since this article was posted, US Secret Service director Julia Pierson has resigned. She told Bloomberg News: “Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency. The media has made it clear that this is what they expected.”

The White House is not the place you would expect to witness a real-life version of the Keystone Kops.

But reports leaked this week of what really happened when a 42-year-old Army veteran jumped the fence and sprinted over the North Lawn in a manner which would have the crowd roaring at Twickenham suggest that the old comic gang has taken over the Secret Service, tasked with the protection of the President and various other Very Important People.

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Omar Gonzalez, a retired sergeant and former scout in the US Cavalry, made his charge at the White House on the evening of 19 September. He was, according to initial reports, swiftly brought to ground at the door of the North Portico and bundled off to face the judge.

And, according to the Secret Service and White House spokesmen, he was unarmed.

That was the first detail that turned out to be untrue: he was armed with a folding knife, and had numerous rounds of ammunition in his car.

The Los Angeles Times was the first to report that he is yet another Iraq war veteran to have been diagnosed with PSTD, post-traumatic stress disorder. He is said to be delusional, homeless and living in his car.

At his first court appearance, it emerged that Gonzalez had been at the White House on an important mission to inform the President that the earth’s atmosphere was collapsing, and that Obama must act most urgently.

So far, so good: another potentially dangerous nut is ably fielded by the men in dark suits with shoulder holsters and microphones in their ears. Unlike the infamous case of Michael Fagan who reached the Queen's bedroom in Buckingham Palace in 1982, Gonzalez was at least stopped at the door.

Well, no.

The Washington Post revealed on Monday what actually happened, and by yesterday afternoon the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, was facing the music in front of a Congressional committee.

Gonzalez did indeed leap over the iron railings which separate the White House grounds from the public spaces around it. This raises the first question: why was he not spotted by the foot patrols around the perimeter? It turns out that he had been stopped and taken in for questioning at least three times. But nobody noticed this time.

As he sprinted across the North Lawn, Secret Service agents chased after him. We don't know whether they brandished raised truncheons like their Keystone counterparts, but we do know that none of them caught him.

The dog handler on duty spotted him too, but was afraid to release his ‘K9’ for fear that the attack dog would bite one of the Secret Service agents rather than Gonzalez.

Gonzalez reached the front door and must have been amazed to find it unlocked. He charged through, barreling past the female Secret Service agent at the door post.

The door guard is meant to hit the “lock-down” button as soon as the alarm sounds of an intruder on the grounds. But the alarm had been turned off because it is very noisy, goes off frequently without cause, and disturbs the Ushers’ Office also situated at the North Porch.

Gonzalez ran through the vast Central Hall and into the East Room, familiar to the public from state occasions. Fortunately, he had not thought to turn right in the Great Hall instead of left, because there is the staircase leading to the President’s family quarters and, behind the staircase, the family dining room and pantry.

He ran the length of the East Room and was turning into the Green Room, behind the bowed façade of the White House, when he was finally tackled by a “counter-assault agent”.

“Whether deficient procedures, insufficient training, personnel shortages, or low morale contributed to the incident, this can never happen again,” House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said at yesterday’s Congressional hearing. “We simply cannot allow it.”

Julia Pierson, the Secret Service chief, responded: “I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts.”

She had better. Barak Obama is a particularly vulnerable president in the face of American racism and polarised politics, and he lives in the White House with a wife and two teenage daughters.

The fear is that such obvious gaps in the security blanket represent a far wider malaise in the country’s Homeland Security apparatus. And it stirred those fears last night when Issa demanded that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), set up after 9/11, should take over an investigation in the Secret Service failings.

That is because that hydra-headed bureaucracy of paranoia in the age of the “war on terror” has itself become the focus of concern of a collapse in effective defence.

Last week, the Washington Post pointed out that an “exodus” of senior officials at Homeland Security was “undercutting the agency’s ability to stay ahead of a range of emerging threats, including potential terrorist strikes and cyber-attacks.

Officials were quitting at twice the rate of other government agencies, the Post reported. “The departures are a result of what employees widely describe as a dysfunctional work environment, abysmal morale, and the lure of private security companies paying top dollar that have proliferated in Washington since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”

That last point is crucial. While Obama’s bodyguards play the clown, he has been presiding over an alarming transformation in American security. Just as more and more prisons are “privatised” to companies which openly campaign for tough drug laws to maintain prison numbers and therefore profits, more and more security work is “contracted” out to the money-spinning sector.

In the age of unregulated free markets in which the corporations own Congress, America’s security establishment is focused on making money rather than safeguarding hearth and home, even the President’s.

It was revealed last night, in a Washington Post report, that during President Obama's trip to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention (to discuss the Ebola crisis) in Atlanta on 16 September, a lapse in security meant that an armed man with three convictions for assault and battery was allowed to travel in the same lift as the President.

To make matters worse, he was a private security contractor employed by the CDC. As the Post reports, "Extensive screening is supposed to keep people with weapons or criminal histories out of arm’s reach of the president. But it appears that this man, possessing a gun, came within inches of the president after undergoing no such screening."

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