Politics & Policy

How to Keep the White House Secure

(trekandshoot/Dreamstime.com)
Bureaucracy and political spin work to the detriment of presidential safety.

White House staff spends enormous amounts of time planning a president’s every move so that his public persona reflects the mood of the public. This may include everything from entering Air Force and Marine One to managing crowds at events and even on the grounds of the White House. Secret Service agents wear suits to blend in with presidential visits, not stand out. Everything appears fine, until it isn’t.

The facts surrounding last week’s threat to the White House are clear and simple, which is why it has received so much attention. A man jumped a fence that is less secure than one would find at a self-storage facility; he then ran some 100 yards to the front door of the White House. Nothing stopped him, not weapons, nor trained dogs, nor dozens of uniformed Secret Service agents who could have at least tackled him in the yard. The door was unlocked, and he showed himself inside. This is a security failure.

Accessibility and openness are good politics but bad security. Our society has come to expect that trade-off, and electoral politics demands it. One wrong move that appears to reveal a president ensconced in a White House bubble can lose an election, such as when President George H. W. Bush was criticized for expressing interest in the capabilities of a grocery-store scanner in the early 1990s. The media portrayed him as out of touch with regular people.

Our current president appears out of touch with regular people, because he is out of touch with the world. The White House staff needs to better understand and process recent events. The social-media image of an Islamic State flag on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House prominently in the background, went viral just last month. Is there any better sign than this that we need to improve presidential security procedures at the White House?

They aren’t improved, and here is why: It is too complex and time-consuming. A simple fix to the fence, replaced a half-century ago and originally ordered built by Thomas Jefferson to keep livestock off the property, would be to tilt it outwards at an angle from the White House grounds. This would allow the force of gravity to make climbing it difficult, without ruining the aesthetics. Yet if an earnest staffer or Secret Service agent went to the White House chief of staff and suggested tilting the fence a few degrees, they would never be seen or heard from again, because they would immediately become buried in bureaucratic details and process.

Although the Secret Service is the primary agency responsible for the security of the president while he is in the White House, it does not act alone. The actors involved include the White House staff, Washington D.C. metro police, and U.S. Park Police. Most of these additional participants in the security decision-making chain have little or no security training, notably White House staff, the National Park Service, and the White House Historical Association. It would take reams of paperwork to start the process of making the fence a barrier, perhaps rivaling the amount needed to codify Obamacare. Like other federal endeavors, our national government fails to economize its own scale, letting agencies with clashing agendas freeze everything in time. That is the history of the White House fence.

The fence is just one example of a tactical measure that could be taken, and there are hundreds of others. The real problem is organizational. As a former Secret Service agent during two administrations, I was always concerned that the White House staff placed too much emphasis on “optics”: What is the backdrop of a presidential speech, who is in the crowd, where does the motorcade arrive, and this list goes on and on. For too long, security concerns were subordinated to political concerns surrounding the president, and the dominant partner in this relationship has been the White House staff. Balance is required in this relationship. Ironically, it is the political people who tend to overreact in these situations, overcompensating and underdelivering. Before they turn the White House into an ugly medieval castle, everyone needs to stop and analyze the sequence of events that allowed this individual to get through several layers of security.

Put someone in charge, initiate tactical measures that ensure people can’t run around like wild animals on the White House lawn and get through the door, and move on.

— Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent, is the Republican candidate in Maryland’s sixth congressional district. 

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