Secret Service must shape up

The Detroit News

It was a familiar sight earlier this week as then-director of the U.S. Secret Service Julia Pierson sat before a Congressional oversight committee, attempting to defend the egregious breach of security at the White House by an armed intruder on Sept. 19.

In what has been a string of Secret Service mishaps over the past few years, this most recent failure is monumental. The core mission of the Secret Service is to protect the life of the president. Systemic and cultural changes must be made within the department to guarantee the safety of the president and his family, and those of others the service is charged with safeguarding.

While scathing interrogations of powerful bureaucrats are now common in Washington, that doesn’t mean the American people should find these security lapses any easier to swallow. Nor should it be acceptable for government officials to withhold the truth from the public or the president, as apparently happened with these events.

Pierson respectably resigned her post Thursday. But the chronic flaws within the Secret Service go deeper than Pierson, and more needs to be done to get at the root of these issues. That might include an independent review, in addition to new leadership and appropriate dismissals.

On Sept. 19, Omar Gonzalez managed to jump the White House fence, cross the lawn and ram his way past several guards into the East Room. The nation is fortunate he was merely carrying a knife and not a gun or bomb, and that Obama and his family had just left the building.

That incident happened days before it was also revealed an armed ex-convict — with three prior convictions — rode in an elevator with Obama, who was Atlanta with the Centers for Disease Control discussing the Ebola outbreak. Only after the man refused to stop taking pictures of the president did Secret Service discover he had a gun.

And it was also recently reported that shots fired directly at the White House in 2011 were egregiously dismissed as backfire from a nearby construction vehicle. It took the department four days to discover shots had actually hit the president’s home.

These security breaches are unacceptable.

But the mentality that seems to pervade this once-elite group responsible for protecting some of the most targeted people and buildings on earth explains how such threats make their way so close to the president and his family.

Pierson stated during her hearing that Gonzalez “ignored verbal commands” from officers. But verbal commands are obviously not enough to stop someone determined to attack the president.

Pierson also argued the department’s tight budget and “human capital challenges” may have had something to do with the breach. But the department’s $1.7 billion budget has significantly increased in the past two decades, and yet it is still ill-prepared to prevent fence-jumpers at the White House, the place where its efforts should be concentrated.

Inter-agency communication of law enforcement agencies in Washington must also improve. Virginia police had previously arrested Gonzalez, who was found with 800 rounds of ammunition, a machete and a map of the White House. He was later found outside the White House with a hatchet.

He should have been on a watch list as a threat to the president.

Unless these problems are fixed quickly, the gaps in the Secret Service’s protective ring around the president will invite other attempts by other would-be attackers.

Not so long ago, the Secret Service was known as the world’s most competent and capable bodyguards. It needs to restore that reputation.