More than a week after the world watched a deranged Omar Gonzalez somehow slip his way into what we thought was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the world, we find out that what actually happened was even worse.
According to a Washington Post exclusive, not only did Gonzalez get across the White House lawn, but he was so deep inside the president’s house that he pretty much got the tour of the main floor. Most of us have to get through months of background checks and waiting lists before we can even go through the visitors’ side entrance. Gonzalez, a mentally ill former sniper, just danced right in—with a knife in hand and 800 rounds of military-grade ammunition in a car parked not too far away.
Which raises the question: What’s up with the Secret Service? There could be only two reasons that Secret Service protection for President Barack Obama is slipping these days: Either agents missed the memo that he’s the first black president or they really are just that overwhelmed.
We can quip about the first reason, even though race is going to factor into it whether we like it or not. But giving the vaunted agency of “elite” federal law-enforcement sentinels the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it’s the latter—which has everything to do with him being the first black president.
With Obama receiving four times as many annual threats as the last guy in the White House, one would think the service would be at its finest. Clearly, we get it: A 400 percent increase in threats is enough to overwhelm, and security can’t always be at 100—something is bound to slip through bad cracks. But it’s been an embarrassing ball drop after ball drop, with White House guards unable to fully secure what we thought was, until another Washington Post exposé, the most secure building on the planet. (The Post describes a chilling episode of Secret Service ineptitude when a gunman opened fire on the president’s home back in 2011.)
It was crazy watching nearly 30 seconds of footage of an apparently unstable Iraq War veteran’s unblocked sprint across the White House lawn. Average folks get clammy hands just snapping a tourist selfie up against the front fence. In fact, if you’ve ever toured the White House, your nerves are frayed from walking through the intimidating layers of security.
But accused runner Gonzalez was like the sequel to Forrest Gump, completely crashing through that fabled mystique of black-suited G-men jumping out of bushes. There were no snipers on rooftops taking (at least) his leg out. No growling canines ripping his pants leg off. No one even bothered to lock the front door, according to multiple reports. Yet, as even Slate’s Josh Voorhees acknowledges here, police have had an increasingly trigger-happy habit of shooting unarmed black men who aren’t posing any type of serious threat.
While Voorhees celebrates what “the Secret Service got right amidst all they did wrong: not a single shot was fired,” the rest of us are a bit hazy. That’s not how it works when you’re protecting the “leader of the free world”—or so our cinematic conditioning tells us. And nothing should be left to chance when it’s the entire first black family’s life on the line.
Even Obama’s predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, saw to it that the then-senator from Illinois—who hadn’t yet been nominated—received Secret Service protection out of an abundance of caution in the wake of mounting death threats. I can remember seeing, from a busy Denver expressway during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, what looked like almost an entire regiment of military personnel and assets parked into a baselike encampment near the center of the festivities.
If the Bush administration back then appreciated the magnitude of history that hadn’t even occurred, what’s going on with the Secret Service today under its current boss? Not only did it not catch on to four bullets that flew into the White House back in 2011 until four days after it happened, according to that unsettling Washington Post story, but it has endured repeated scandals of partying-hard agents on the POTUS travel detail getting lit on liquor and Colombian prostitutes.
Obviously, with a whole lotta crazy folks out there thinking about our president, this is when the Secret Service should be stepping up its best game—not letting the world see it sweat … or letting reportedly mentally ill former snipers bust their way deep into White House territory. Congress gets more aggressive protection, apparently: Miriam Carey barely made it to any steps, and was fatally shot in her car five times by Capitol Hill police, when they could have just shot the tires and saved her toddler in the backseat from a lifetime of trauma. Something’s all off on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hopefully, congressional hearings will grill folks into fixing it.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.