On September 11, 2001, Secret Service agents literally grabbed Vice President Dick Cheney and hauled him from the White House to a secure facility beneath the Executive Mansion.
As for everyone else who worked in the White House, agents simply threw open the White House doors and ordered: “Run!”
“Women, take off your shoes!” agents shouted–so they could run faster. Frightened Presidential aides were told to remove their White House badges–just in case snipers were lurking nearby.
That was it.
With the World Trade Center and Pentagon in flames, and the White House seemingly next in line as a target, this was the sum total of protection offered White House staffers by the agency considered the elite in Federal law enforcement.
Not knowing what to do, some aides walked home in a daze.
(President George W. Bush was not in the White House at the time. He was reading The Pet Goat to a group of children at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.)
Three days later, on September 14, Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, addressed White House staffers in Room 450 of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing.
Card said he understood that “this is not what any of you signed up for when you joined the White House staff.” And he offered them the chance to resign without anyone–himself or the President–thinking any less of them.
When no one offered to leave, Card let a Secret Service agent offer security advice:
- Vary your routines to and from work.
- Watch out for any cars that might be following you.
- Go to different restaurants for lunch.
At least one member of the audience, Bradford Berenson, an associate White House counsel, knew he wouldn’t be taking that advice.
Like most of the others at the meeting, his name was listed in the local phone book. A terrorist wanting to kill him need only lurk outside Berenson’s home and open fire when he appeared.
And that was it, as far as the Secret Service was concerned.
No offers of even temporary escorts by Secret Service agents. No offers to install “panic buttons” in their homes in case of emergency.
In essence: “We’re really glad you’ve decided to serve your country. But don’t expect us to protect you. You’re on your own.”
Fast forward 13 years later.
On the night of September 19, an Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales, jumped the White House fence, ran more than 70 yards across the north lawn, and sprinted just past the north portico White House doors.
Gonzalez appeared unarmed as he ran across the lawn–possibly one reason why Secret Service agents didn’t shoot him or release their service dogs to detain him. But he had a small folding knife with a three-and-one-half-inch serrated blade when he was apprehended.
According to a criminal complaint, when he was arrested he told Secret Service agents he was “concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing” and needed to contact the President “so he could get word out to the people.”
Even more disturbing: At the time of his arrest, Gonzalez had a machete, two hachets and 800 rounds of ammunition in his car.
In July, he had been arrested in Wythe County, Virginia, and charged with possession of a shotgun and a sniper rifle. He was also charged with eluding and evading arrest.
In addition, police found that Gonzalez had a map with the White House circled.
Then, in late August, Gonzalez was stopped while walking along the White House fence. He was carrying a hatchet and allowed police to search his car, where they found camping gear and two dogs. He was not arrested then.
Why was he even allowed outside a jail cell?
Secret Service agents standing post.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) has called for a “full investigation” of the incident.
“I have great respect for the Secret Service, but this is absolutely inexcusable,” King said in an appearance two days later on “Fox News Sunday.”
King said officers should have acted more quickly, as the man could have had a body bomb or vest. He also argued that given the tensions between the United States and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the Secret Service should have been especially alert.
King said the House Homeland Security Committee would likely hold hearings on the incident.
The Secret Service’s Office of Professional Responsibility will review the incident.
(President Barack Obama was not in the White House at the time. He and his daughters had just left to spend the weekend at Camp David, the Presidential retreat.)
Then, 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. This triggered a search of his vehicle by bomb technicians in full gear. Other agents shut down nearby streets. No bombs were found.