Once again there has been a breach of security at the White House, and this one could have been serious. A 42 year old man with a three and a half inch knife jumped the White House fence and bolted 70 yards across the North Lawn to the front of the White House. He found an unlocked door, and opened it before a guard took him down. He had made it past the East Room, past the family staircase and into the Green Room, before an off duty guard tackled him! President Obama and his two daughters had left the White House by helicopter a few moments before. I am amazed. I have attended many fine parties in that area since l968, and thought it was well guarded.
The man has been identified as Omar J. Gonzalez, who had served three tours in Iraq as a sniper. He was reportedly homeless and relatives in Texas said he might have been suffering from PTSD. Later, police found an arsenal in his car -- hatchets, guns, maps, and rounds of ammunition. He had once been stopped by Virginia police, but the information was not acted on by the Secret Service.
The next day there was another incident at the White House. A man was arrested for trying to drive past a White House barricade. Other incidents have since come to light, forcing the resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson after 18 months on the job. In the most serious a man with a gun and three criminal convictions was on an elevator with the President on September 16. He took photos but apparently did not try to harm the President. He was reportedly cleared for a temporary assignment to guard the President! The incident took place in Atlanta.
I have been privileged to cover the White House and other venues since 1968, and there have been many tense occasions. A few years ago someone shot at the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue and bullets lodged in the Press Room walls and windows. A small plane crashed into the White House.
On November 11, 2011 a man fired at least seven shots into the White House from 700 yards away, on Constitution Avenue. Several hit the family living quarters, where Sasha and her Grandmother were home. The Washington Post, which broke many of the stories, says it was several days before police realized bullets had hit the White House.
There have been numerous cases of people trying to jump the fence. Recently, an infant squeezed through the bars and ran loose on the White House lawn. There was also the serious case when one of the hijacked 9/11 jets may have been headed towards the White House; the passengers crashed it in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The Secret Service has been embarrassed or unnerved by these and other incidents, and investigations are ongoing. But I want to put in a good word for them. I feel they do their best to keep us safe without being bullies or heavy handed. I am honored to go into the White House frequently in my job as a reporter. We know many of the officers by name and they know us. In the Press Room, some of the officers duck inside to quickly use the toilets or soda machines. We are all human.
I have seen many events since 1968 and many were scary. I was near Robert Kennedy when he was shot in Los Angeles. At one memorable White House ceremony, President Carter, the Shah of Iran and the rest of us were choked with tear gas from demonstrators outside. There are often loud and colorful protests outside the White House. Now these protesters may be moved further away.
Changes are being made, in addition to a new Director. The White House fence might be higher and curved out. There might even be barbed wire on top. Police and their guard dogs may be tougher on intruders or assailants. The budget for the White House police and Secret Service might be increased, and some rules will be tightened. There could be changes in Secret Service responsibilities, including the way they credential reporters.
We all know these are crazy and dangerous times. But I do hope we and the people beyond the fence do not lose our freedom of movement, and I hope politicians will take their risks and not cut themselves off from the public they are meant to serve. So far, the agents we know remain polite and respectful to us. Let's keep it that way!
Connie Lawn at the White House (since 1968)