Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Just lock the White House doors -- Oct. 2, 2014 column


About midnight one spring night, a man climbed the iron fence at the White House and tried to force his way into a rear entrance. 

When caught, he was tugging frantically at the back door and shouting, “Francesca, it is I.” The man, described as “hatless and clad only in a coat of thin serge,” said he believed his murdered wife was inside. 

“It required six men to place him in a cell,” The New York Times reported on its front page. It happened May 12, 1905.    

The century-old news story reminds us that the White House has always attracted more than its share of nuts.   

Sixteen people have jumped the fence in the last five years, including six this year, Secret Service director Julia Pierson told a House panel on Tuesday. The latest on Sept. 19 involved an Army veteran with a knife who scaled the fence and sprinted to the front door and inside the White House.

I don’t know what was done to boost security after the 1905 incident. This time, technology to the rescue, the White House got brand new automatic locks on the front door. Someone was trying to hand lock the door when Omar Gonzalez burst in.

As the Secret Service investigates and members of Congress bloviate about the Gonzalez incident, there’s talk of building yet another ring of barricades and checkpoints around the White House. That’s a bad, knee-jerk, very dumb idea.    

Everyone agrees the breach shows many layers of failed security. But that doesn’t mean we need even more layers to keep citizens even farther away. Secret Service agents evidently need better training to make sure existing systems actually work. And no one should turn off the alarm for the sake of convenience. New leadership at the Secret Service should improve morale and purpose.
The goal should be to ensure the safety of the president and first family while preserving people’s access to The People’s House.
A bit of history: While the house was being built, so many people strolled around the construction site that the city marshal ordered the area closed to anyone without a written pass, according to the Treasury Department’s 1995 “Public Report of the White House Security Review,” which traces the separation of the people from the house.

The 1995 report followed an investigation of two security breaches in 1994. In September of that year, a suicidal man piloted his Cessna all the way to the grounds and crashed into the side of the White House. Six weeks later, a gunman fired 29 semiautomatic rounds at the mansion.  

From the beginning, the impulse was to make the president’s house accessible to the people. Early on, the grounds welcomed an open market. In Jefferson’s time, doors were closed only when the president was asleep or out of town. People wandered around the State Rooms, looking at exhibits Lewis and Clark had brought back from their expedition.

In the antebellum era, ”the iron gates to the White House grounds were open at 8 in the morning and closed at sundown. Almost anyone was likely to wander along the paths,” historian William Seale wrote in his two-volume history, “The President’s House.”  

Free access to the grounds during the day ended with World War II, and security has been tightening ever since. The current 7 ½ foot iron fence was constructed in the 1960s.

Following the terrorist attacks on the Marine barracks and American Embassy in Beirut in the 1980s. concrete Jersey barriers were installed, later replaced with reinforced bollards. Guardhouses dot the grounds.

Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicles in 1995, following the Oklahoma City truck bombing. President Bill Clinton declared at the time:  “I will not in any way allow the fight against domestic and foreign terrorism to build a wall between me and the American people.”

Then, E Street south of the White House was closed to traffic after 9/11.

Presidents and citizens routinely lament “the bubble” presidents inhabit. Widening the moat around The People’s House would only make it worse.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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