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 why agents didn’t shoot him or release their service dogs to detain him. But in his pants pocket he had a small folding knife with a three-and-onoe-half inch serrated blade when he was apprehended.
According to a criminal complaint, when Gonzalez was apprehended 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.”
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.
Asked for Obama’s reaction, White House spokesman Frank Benenati gave this boilerplate reply: “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.”
But the blunt truth is that many of the problems now plaguing the U.S. Secret Service were on full display as early as 2009.
That was when well-known investigative reporter Ronald Kessler published his latest book, In the President’s Secret Service.
Kessler had previously pubilshed books outlining the inner workings of the White House, the CIA and the FBI.
Kessler praised the courage and integrity of Secret Service agents as a whole. But he warned that the agency was risking the safety of many of its protectees, including President Obama.
He was particularly critical of SS management for such practices as:
- Shutting off weapon-scanning magnetometers at rallies for Presidential candidates–and even for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
- During a speech Bush gave at Tbilisi, Georgia in 2005, an assailant threw a live hand grenade–which failed to explode–at him.
- Despite 9/11, Secret Service agents are still being trained to expect an attempt by a lone gunman—rather than a professional squad of terrorist assassins.
- The Service’s Counter Assault Teams (CATs) have generally been cut back from five or six agents to two, rendering them useless if a real attack occurred.
- Salaries paid to SS agents have not kept pace with reality. Veteran SS men and women are now being offered up to four times their salary for moving to the private sector, and many are leaving the agency for that reason.
- While Congress has greatly expanded the duties of this agency, Secret Service management has not asked for equivalent increases in funding and agents.
- Many agents are leaving out of frustration that it takes “juice” or connections with top management to advance one’s career.
- SS agents are being trained with weapons that are outdated (such as the MP5, developed in the 1960s) compared to those used by other law enforcement agencies and the potential assassins they face (such as the M4–with greater range and armor-piercing capabilities).
- The Service refuses to ask for help from other agencies to meet its manpower needs. Thus, a visiting head of state at the U.N. General Assembly will usually be assigned only three agents as protection.
- The agency tells agents to grade themselves on their physical training test forms.
- Agents are supposed to be evaluated on their marksmanship skills every three months. But some agents have gone more than a year without being tested.
- Some agents are so overweight they can’t meet the rigorous demands of the job. As a result, they pose a danger to the people they’re supposed to be guarding.
- The Secret Service inflates its own arrest statistics by claiming credit for arrests made by local police.
- Congressional members who visit the agency’s Rowley Training Center in Laurel, Maryland, are treated to rehearsed scenarios of how the agency would deal with attacks. If agents were allowed to perform these exercises without rehearsals, Congressional members would see they can and do make mistakes like anyone else.
Kessler closes his book with the warning: “Without….changes, an assassination of Barack Obama or a future president is likely.
“If that happens, a new Warren Commission will be appointed to study the tragedy. It will find that the Secret Service was shockingly derelict in its duty to the American people and to its own elite corps of brave and dedicated agents.”
And the effects will be not only momentary but long-term. As Kessler writes:
“By definition, an assassination threatens democracy.
“If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated, Andrew Johnson, his successor, would not have been able to undermine Lincoln’s efforts to reunite the nation and give more rights to blacks during the Reconstruction period.
“If John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated, Lyndon Johnson likely never would have become President. If Robert F. Kennedy had not been killed and had won the presidency, Richard Nixon might never have been elected.”