Secret Service, Public Blunders

Botched. Bungled. Fumbled.

Headline writers quickly exhausted their vocabulary of derision in describing the performance of the U.S. Secret Service on November 11, 2011, when agents failed to prevent an assassination attempt at the White House and took four days to realize the shots weren’t the sound of a car backfiring.

Results of an investigation published on Sunday in The Washington Post revealed “a string of security lapses, never previously reported.” Although some agents on duty did think that shots were fired at the White House — and said so at the time — their superiors overruled them, insisting it was something else. Later that night, after the vehicle backfire theory faded, Secret Service supervisors theorized that gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn.

In an incident reminiscent of the obscure security guard who detected the Watergate burglars, it wasn’t until a housekeeper in the White House noticed broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor and called it to the attention of the agents, that a closer inspection confirmed an assassination attempt. Bullets were then found, along with $97,000 worth of damage previously overlooked. Only then did an all-points bulletin go out for a would-be assassin.

The gunman, Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez, a jobless 21-year-old from Idaho who had talked menacingly about “stopping” Obama, was apprehended four days after the shooting. Had he not panicked and wrecked his car a few blocks away, leaving a semiautomatic rifle and ammunition inside, he might never have been located. He pleaded guilty to slightly lesser charges and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

When the Obamas learned about what happened after returning from a trip, they were understandably upset at the ease with which shots could be fired from a public street across the South Lawn of the White House. Especially since the bullets hit just a few feet from the first family’s formal living room, while one of the Obamas’ daughters and Mrs. Obama’s mother were there.

A furor over the poor performance of the Secret Service has ensued. The timing of the report magnified its impact, coming as it did just eight days after a Texas man armed with a knife jumped the White House fence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and managed to make his way through the front door before being stopped.

Indeed, there seems to be no question about the facts. The Service has admitted its failures, announcing that an internal security review found serious gaps in providing protection for the White House. For example, the agency lacked basic camera surveillance that could have helped agents see the attack and swarm the gunman immediately. An additional array of surveillance cameras was installed in 2012, giving authorities a full view of the perimeter.

But the matter won’t stop there. The wrath of Congress is upon them. “This is symptomatic of an organization that is not moving in the right direction,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), a leading Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said. The committee, which oversees the Secret Service, has called the director to testify at a hearing on Tuesday.

“The episode … demonstrates that an organization long seen by Americans as an elite force of selfless and highly skilled patriots — willing to take a bullet for the good of the country — is not always up to its job,” the Post commented.

We are not comfortable with the implication that Americans might wish to reconsider their admiration for the patriotic selflessness and skill of the U.S. Secret Service.

Such qualities do not belong only to the past, when agent Rufus Youngblood hurled his body over that of Lyndon Johnson to protect him when shots hit President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, or when Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the abdomen as he shielded President Ronald Reagan with his body on March 30, 1981.

As the Post itself noted, upon hearing the shots on the night of November 11, 2011, agents initially rushed to respond. One, stationed directly under the second-floor terrace where the bullets struck, drew her .357 handgun; snipers on the roof, standing just 20 feet from where one bullet struck, scanned the South Lawn through their rifle scopes for signs of an attack.

In the breach a week ago, Secret Service agents drew their weapons as they quickly escorted White House staffers and journalists out of the West Wing through a side door to safety. Patrols were stepped up without delay.

Despite his reported anger over the security breaches, President Obama expressed confidence in the Secret Service last week. “The Secret Service does a great job,” he said. “I’m grateful for all the sacrifices they make on my behalf and on my family’s behalf.”

We feel the same way.