White House intruder got far past front door

2014-09-30 14:33
The White House, Washington DC (Susan Walsh, AP)

The White House, Washington DC (Susan Walsh, AP)

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Washington - The intruder who climbed a fence made it farther inside the White House than the Secret Service has publicly acknowledged, a Republican congressman said on Monday.

The disclosures came on the eve of a congressional oversight hearing with the director of the embattled agency assigned to protect the president's life.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz said Monday night that whistleblowers told his committee that the intruder Omar J Gonzalez, 42, ran through the White House, into the East Room and near the doors to the Green Room before being apprehended.

 They also told the committee that the intruder made it past a female guard stationed inside the White House, Chaffetz said.

In the hours after the 19 September fence-jumper incident, Secret Service spokesperson Ed Donovan told The Associated Press that the suspect had been apprehended just inside the North Portico doors of the White House.

 The Secret Service also said that night that the suspect had been unarmed — an assertion that was revealed to be false the next day when officials acknowledged Gonzalez had a knife with him when he was apprehended.

Counter-assault agent

"I'm worried that over the last several years, security has gotten worse — not better," Chaffetz said.

He said his committee's request for a briefing from the Secret Service on the incident was denied.

It was not clear late Monday what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was told about the extent of the incident.

Senate Judiciary Committee staffers who were briefed about the investigation by the administration a week after the incident were never told that Gonzalez had made it deep into the building, said a congressional official who wasn't authorised to discuss the investigation and requested anonymity.

 The official said the committee later was told that the suspect had, indeed, made it far beyond the front door.

Citing multiple unnamed sources, The Washington Post reported that Gonzalez ran past the guard at the front door, past a staircase leading up to the Obamas' living quarters and into the East Room, which is about halfway across the first floor of the building. Gonzalez was eventually "tackled" by a counter-assault agent, the Post said.

Getting so far would have required Gonzalez to dash through the main entrance hall, turn a corner, then run through the centre hallway half-way across the first floor of the building, which spans 51 metres in total, according to the White House Historical Association.

Audible alarms

The latest details to emerge about the troubling breach were expected to dominate questioning by lawmakers on Tuesday when Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was scheduled to testify before a House committee — her first testimony since the incident. A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment Monday because of the ongoing investigation.

Chaffetz said he planned to question Pierson about concerns raised by whistleblowers that audible alarms intended to alert officers to an intrusion had been muted. He also said the committee learned on Monday night that, in a departure from normal practice, Pierson did not submit any testimony in advance.

Since the incident, the White House has treaded carefully. Although White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the president was "obviously concerned" about the intrusion, he also expressed confidence in the Secret Service as recently as Monday.

It would be untenable for any president, not just Obama, to pointedly criticize the men and women who put themselves at risk to protect his life and family. That inherent conflict of interest means that Congress, not the executive branch, is the most effective oversight authority for the Secret Service, its agents and officers.

"The president and the first lady, like all parents, are concerned about the safety of their children, but the president and first lady also have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to do a very important job," Earnest said.

Executive mansion

Had the intruder been heavily armed and the president and his family at home, the security lapse could have had serious consequences.

No one was hurt in the incident, but it's not the first involving the White House itself, raising the question whether the latest breach is part of a pattern of delayed reactions to threats to the executive mansion. The Secret Service says that is not the case.

Yet in another White House incident in 2011, described by the Post over the weekend, the Secret Service did not immediately respond to shots fired at the White House, amid what the agency describes as uncertainty about where the shots originated.

Four days later, it was discovered that at least one of the shots broke the glass of a window on the third level of the mansion, the Secret Service said.

At the time of that incident, the president and first lady Michelle Obama were away, but their daughters were in Washington — one home and the other due to return that night.

Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 2011 incident.

After the Sept. 19 breach, Pierson ordered a review of the incident and possible changes to security measures at and around the White House. She briefed the president on Thursday.

Weapons and ammunition

Gonzalez was on the Secret Service radar as early as July when state troopers arrested him during a traffic stop in southwest Virginia.

State troopers there said Gonzalez had an illegal sawed-off shotgun and a map of Washington tucked inside a Bible with a circle around the White House, other monuments and campgrounds.

 The troopers seized a stash of other weapons and ammunition found during a search of Gonzalez's car.

The Secret Service interviewed Gonzalez in July, but were unable to hold him and he was released on bail. Gonzalez was stopped and questioned again on Aug. 25 while walking along the White House's south fence. He had a hatchet, but no firearms. His car was searched, but he was not arrested.

"There's a misperception out there that we have some broad detention powers," said Donovan, the Secret Service spokesman. He pointed out that Secret Service, like other law enforcement agencies, must have evidence of criminal behavior before filing charges against an individual.

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