Despite its illustrious setting, Roland Emmerich's "White House Down" is a mindless summer blockbuster for the most part. But it does raise some interesting, even disturbing, real-life questions.
Is it really possible to storm the White House and take the president hostage? Would the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East really provoke a right-wing backlash? Could a hacker really use the White House computer system to launch missiles? And is the president allowed to buzz the National Mall just for kicks?
Hoping for answers, HuffPost Entertainment dialed up former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke, who has served every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, to ask whether any of this stuff could actually happen. (Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.)
Clarke said the fundamental premise of the film -- that a group of armed men could sneak into the White House, raid its armory, pick off a bunch of guards and ultimately take the president hostage -- is far-fetched, to say the least.
"There's extensive searching of every vehicle and every person, so no one's going to get into the White House with a gun," said Clarke. "But the other thing is, even if they do and even if they were able to wipe out a few Secret Service agents, there's a lot of response capability that is pretty well hidden. And the White House could instantly become a fortress if it needed to be one."
A fortress? But in grade school, they taught us that the White House was the people's house. What gives?
Clarke said a lot of effort goes into preserving that illusion -- but it's still an illusion. "The White House may look like a National Park Service tourist destination with a couple more policemen at it. It's a lot more than that," he said. "When I wanted to close Pennsylvania Ave. back in 1996, '97 [following the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City], that was the argument against me: 'We don't want this place to look like a fortress, we want it to look like the people's house.' And I said, 'I want it to continue standing, so we're closing the street.'"
A few years later, neighbors of the White House got a real-life demonstration of its defense capabilities. "If you look at what happened on 9/11," Clarke said, "we ordered the evacuation of the White House, so everybody except my team was turned out. But we then ordered the Secret Service to establish and defend a perimeter. And it would have been hard to get past that perimeter. And if you had, there was another one behind it."
Speaking of 9/11, the part of the movie when President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) announces that he's withdrawing American forces from the Middle East -- where have we heard that before?
"One of the demands of al-Qaeda was that the U.S. pull all of its troops out of Saudi Arabia. And after 9/11, we never said that we were giving in to al-Qaeda, but we did turn around and ask ourselves, 'Why the hell do we have troops in Saudi Arabia?' And the reason was that we put them in there in the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait. And when we did it, we promised -- and I was in the room -- we promised the king of Saudi Arabia that as soon as the war was over, we'd pull all the troops out," Clarke said.
The Saudi King changed his mind and decided he liked hosting our troops after all. But in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. quietly removed them. "We did it in a way that didn't attract a lot of attention, so it didn't look like we were giving in to al-Qaeda, which we weren't, really," Clarke recalled. "We were just saying, 'Look, this is a source of friction, this is something that the al-Qaeda types can criticize, and we don't need to be doing it, so let's get out.'"
According to Clarke, there aren't many U.S. forces left in the Middle East to withdraw, unless you count Afghanistan. The U.S. has pulled its troops out of Iraq, leaving an Army base in Kuwait, a Navy base in Bahrain, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, some special forces in Qatar, and a "smattering" of "facilities where you just add water and stir and you have a U.S. Air Force base." Of those, the only one causing much friction is the Navy base in Bahrain, where sectarian conflict could yield a Shia-led government that might choose to kick our sailors out.
So is the movie's premise -- that the U.S. is only there to enrich military contractors and placate right-wing "patriots" -- correct?
"The reason we're there is that they want us, these [Arab] governments. They want us as a counterweight to Iran, primarily," Clarke said.
Beyond that, in the interests of economic stability, the world needs someone to protect the global oil supply from disruption, but also from blackmail.
"If there could be a reliable, multilateral force that would guarantee that oil flow, then we wouldn't have to do it," Clarke said. "But the experience, unfortunately, with multilateral peacekeepers in the past is: the s*** hits the fan and they don't fight. So you've got to have somebody there everyone trusts to be there -- and everyone trusts that, when the s*** hits the fan, they're gonna kick ass. And, uh, there's nobody else."
The most alarming scenes in "White House Down" depict zany terrorists taking control of America's conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities and firing missiles at people they don't like. That couldn't happen, could it?
"The nuclear launch systems are not run by the White House computer people," Clarke said, barely stifling a laugh. "They're run by the Defense Department, and they're constantly tested by the best hackers in the world, which are NSA's. One of the jobs NSA doesn't talk about a lot is that it constantly attacks and defends the nuclear command-and-control system, so all of the stuff you see in the movie about taking control of the nuclear command-and-control system is fantasy."
Is there anything about this movie that is realistic? How about the scene in which President Sawyer orders the pilot of Marine 1 to fly low over the Reflecting Pool and tight around the Washington Monument so he can be reminded of how awesome it is to be the leader of the free world? Does the POTUS really have the authority to do that?
"Oh, sure he does," said Clarke. "Who's gonna stop him? I don't think the parks police are going to issue a ticket if that happens."