WASHINGTON — The Secret Service is coming under renewed scrutiny after a man scaled the White House fence and made it all the way through the front door before he was apprehended.
President Barack Obama and his daughters had just left the White House on Friday evening when the intruder climbed the north fence, darted across the lawn and into the residence, where agents nabbed him.
The security breach triggered a rare evacuation of much of the White House. Secret Service officers drew their guns as they rushed staffers and journalists out a side door.
For the Secret Service, the incident was a devastating episode that prompted fresh questions about the agency and its ability to protect the president.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, called it “totally unacceptable” and said the incident was just one of a string of security failings on the Secret Service’s watch.
“Unfortunately, they are failing to do their job,” said Chaffetz, R-Utah. “These are good men and women, but the Secret Service leadership has a lot of questions to answer.”
“Was the door open?” he added incredulously.
The Secret Service said the incident would be reviewed to ensure proper procedures were followed.
On Saturday morning, Secret Service agents could be seen walking shoulder to shoulder across the North Lawn, apparently combing the turf for anything the intruder may have dropped during his sprint the night before. The Secret Service said only that the activity was related to the previous night’s incident.
The intruder, in jeans and a dark shirt, appeared to be unarmed when he scaled the fence shortly after 7 p.m. Friday, ignoring commands from officers to halt, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said. The intruder was tackled just inside the doors of the North Portico, the grand, columned entrance that looks out over Pennsylvania Avenue. A search of the suspect turned up no weapons.
The Secret Service identified the man as Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas. He was charged with unlawful entry into the White House complex and transported to a nearby hospital complaining of chest pain. Attempts to reach Gonzalez or his relatives by phone were unsuccessful.
Although it’s not uncommon for people to make it over the White House fence, they usually are stopped almost immediately. Video from the scene showed the intruder sprinting across the lawn as Secret Service agents shouted at nearby pedestrians to clear the area.
“This situation was a little different than other incidents we have at the White House,” Donovan said. “There will be a thorough investigation into the incident.”
Only minutes before the breach, Obama had boarded his helicopter on the South Lawn with his daughters and one of their friends, who was joining the Obamas for a weekend getaway to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. First lady Michelle Obama had traveled separately to Camp David.
Friday’s incident was just the latest setback for an elite agency whose reputation has suffered a succession of blows in recent years.
In 2012, 13 Secret Service agents and officers were implicated in a prostitution scandal during preparations for Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia. The next year, two officers were removed from the president’s detail after another alleged incident of sexually-related misconduct. In March, an agent was found drunk by staff at a Dutch hotel the day before Obama was set to arrive in the Netherlands.
Obama appointed the agency’s first female director last year as a sign he wanted to change the culture and restore public confidence in its operations. An inspector general’s report in December found no evidence of widespread misconduct.
The Secret Service has struggled in recent years to strike the appropriate balance between ensuring the first family’s security and preserving the public’s access to the White House grounds. Once open to vehicles, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was confined to pedestrians after the Oklahoma City bombing, but officials have been reluctant to restrict access to the area further.
Last week, the Secret Service apprehended a man who jumped over the same stretch of fence on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, prompting officers to draw their firearms and deploy service dogs.