In days gone by, Americans had no trouble walking by the public facilities of the branches of authority, but then again, those were different ages too. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 exposed the vulnerability of government buildings to car bombs, which prompted an immediate effort to install decorative-but-effective barricades to automobiles at almost every government building in the US. The 9/11 attacks further extended the security zones, which have remained in place in Washington DC to this day. After two separate incidents at the White House, those barricades and checkpoints may end up extending out a block or more away:
After an unprecedented security breach Friday night at the White House, the U.S. Secret Service is weighing a series of measures that would move tourists and D.C. residents farther away from the complex to reduce the chances of intruders piercing its security perimeter and endangering the president.
One proposal is to keep people off the sidewalks around the White House fence and create several yards of additional barrier around the compound’s perimeter. Another is to screen visitors as far as a block away from the entrance gates.
The White House has had fence jumpers in the past. What made this different? Well …
The plans for enhanced security come after an incident Friday that exposed gaps in the Secret Service’s ability to secure the formal seat of the executive and the home of the first family. A man jumped over the White House fence just after 7:20 p.m. and was able to sprint unimpeded to the North Portico and enter the unlocked front door of the White House [emphasis mine].
It happened less than 10 minutes after President Obama left on his Marine One helicopter, and officers responding to the alarm for a fence-jumping could not reach the intruder before he reached the mansion. When he stepped inside the foyer, an officer stationed there subdued him.
Ahem. Extending the barricades out another block wouldn’t have solved that security failure. That’s even more curious, given the explanation in this Washington Post piece about the increase of late in fence-jumpers. If that’s a new pattern, why would the Secret Service leave the front door unlocked?
Furthermore, how exactly would the Secret Service enforce this new barricade system? Unless they plan to deploy a lot more personnel, it would stretch the perimeter even more, forcing agents to cover more ground. It might give them a little extra time to catch someone in a dash to the front door, but it’s more likely to leave more openings to make the dash in the first place. If the plan is to add more agents to perimeter security against someone on foot, why not do that now rather than cut off even more DC territory to Americans who just want to see the White House (and presumably Capitol Hill)?
Petula Dvorak responds at the Post with a hyperbolic rant which nevertheless makes the right point, in between some astonishing nuttiness:
And now the Secret Service — which hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory the past few years — wants us to pay for its mistake, to once again intrude on more public space and make suspects out of millions of visitors, residents and office workers who come near the White House every day. To further encroach on the country’s most important values: our openness and our freedom.
The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation’s most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the feeling of hostility, fear and paranoia that already pervades the heart of our nation.
Er … an “Anschluss”? Perhaps Ms. Dvorak isn’t familiar enough with the actual Anschluss to know that it wasn’t a seizure of German public property to prevent scrutiny of the Nazi government, but the illegal annexation of another country altogether. I’d be willing to use Kelo for a good rant rather than fulfill Godwin’s Law with the Nazi allusion. Or maybe TSA makes for a more rational comparison:
We’ve been doing this for years now, trying to solve our fear problems with fences, X-ray machines, magnometers, perimeters and dizzying traffic patterns. …
When I covered federal park and land hearings in D.C., I watched architects, park rangers and museum curators regularly lose battles with the security experts, who closed off buildings, dehumanized visitors and cost taxpayers millions.
And then they’d have reports showing that despite all the measures, threatening people still got past guards and checkpoints because of human error. Oops! Officer Jimmy Joe Smith was checking his e-mail, let’s build more walls!
Dvorak gets back on track with that cogent argument, and then gets derailed again with this:
Finally, why aren’t we looking at the real problem highlighted by Gonzalez, an Army veteran who did three deployments in Iraq, earned medals and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder? …
The Secret Service would rather punish the public and cover the butts of the officials in charge of keeping the White House secure than see this veteran’s distress and help do something about it.
Perhaps that might be because it’s not the Secret Service’s job. Their job is to protect the White House and its occupants. The issue of veteran homelessness and despair belongs to the President and Congress. The Secret Service exists to make sure they have the opportunity to exercise those functions, not to replace elected officials and do it themselves.
Dvorak is correct that the answer to this issue isn’t to turn the nation’s capital into Fortress Columbia. Skip the hyperbole and weird tangents, and she’s largely correct. Her paper reports that this plan is still “notional,” and let’s hope it stays that way.
Update: Great news from Josh Earnest:
“After Friday night’s incident, when the door is not in use, it will be secured,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, clarifying that officials would, in fact, lock the door.
That’s a start, anyway.