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Failures of White House security raises concern about Secret Service complacency – Part 2

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Washington Post reported Saturday that it took four days in November 2011 before the Secret Service realized a gunman had shot at and hit the White House seven times. The president and first lady were away, but daughter Sasha and her grandmother were inside.

    Reports of shots fired were not linked to the White House itself until a housekeeper spotted broken glass and a chunk of cement knocked loose by a bullet. The shooter, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, who’s from Idaho, fled the scene, but was later arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

    The new disclosures came only a few days after an Iraq war veteran jumped a fence, ran across the lawn and made it just inside the executive mansion. Officials have since put up new barriers, keeping tourists and passers-by even farther away.

    We get more from The Washington Post reporter who broke both of these stories, Carol Leonnig.

    Carol, thank you for being with us again.

    So new information about this man who jumped the fence last week and got into the White House, and now it turns out farther than anybody thought.

  • CAROL LEONNIG, The Washington Post:

    Yes, people have been making jokes today that he went in and made himself a sandwich.

    It’s really disconcerting that some sources who have come to us and some whistle-blowers who have come to Congressman Chaffetz have recounted something more serious about this security breach about 10 days ago. Omar Gonzalez apparently not on made it to the front door and opened it. He made it past the guard who was stationed inside that area and into the East Room.

    Most, you know, members of the public haven’t seen the East Room except on television or on the Internet. But it’s the ornate, elaborate room that the president uses for addresses and receptions. And this person was tackled there after making it all the way to the south end of that 80-foot-long room.

    This suggests that he had a lot of opportunities to be close to other people in the house. And, as you all know, the president and his daughters had just lifted off in their helicopter at that point from the South Lawn when Omar Gonzalez made a break for it on the North Lawn and got in the house.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Carol, this means yet another layer of Secret Service protection was breached?

  • CAROL LEONNIG:

    Yes. And, you know, I’m glad you bring up the layers.

    So, we wrote a story probably about a week ago that was about the five security layers that former agents had highlighted for us. And they said, you know, it’s just is amazing that the successive layers would be breached, first the countersurveillance guys on the outside that are supposed to see suspicious activity and jumpers, then the uniformed division officers who are supposed to be able to collar that person, then the canine dogs who are supposed to be released, so that that dog can basically act like a missile and knock down an intruder.

    Then, fourth, a SWAT team that is on the ground is able to respond to a crisis, and then, fifth, a uniformed division officer who is supposed to be posted on the outside at the door at all times. All of those, we know failed. However, what we didn’t know until today was the account of that was — is spooling out to us, was that there was another Secret Service officer posted inside who appeared to be caught unaware that there was an intruder coming here her way and about to burst through the door.

    And when she was caught unaware, he — though he tried to collar him, according to these sources, he overpowered her and barrelled past her and into really the heart of the ceremonial White House.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this just raises all sorts of new questions.

    So, Carol, I also want to ask you about the story you broke over the weekend, this incident in 2011. It was known that there was a shooting. The man behind it went to prison for 25 years. What wasn’t known was how much the Secret Service botched this. What exactly went wrong?

  • CAROL LEONNIG:

    You know, I think of this story sort of in three parts.

    A lot of what went wrong was from an investigative standpoint. So, as you have already well-described, this shooter pulled out a semiautomatic rifle, pointed it at the White House while he was parked on Constitution Avenue and struck the residence of the Obamas seven times, two of them going into the windows of a living room that Michelle Obama has described as one of her favorite rooms.

    Michelle and the president were not at home at this time. But Sasha was at home, their youngest daughter. Mother-in-law Marian Robinson was there. And Malia, their older daughter, was on her way home.

    But what happened was the Secret Service leadership decided that it was very unlikely that this shooter and the gunshots that were heard were aimed at the White House. They thought that was likely impossible that somebody could shoot that far. And they deduced that, instead, two gangsters were shooting at each other.

    They found an abandoned car very soon after the gunfire was heard on the South Lawn abandoned and crashed. Inside it was this knockoff semiautomatic rifle — sorry — knockoff AK-47. And, again, they deduced this was one of the gangster’s cars.

    But what they didn’t investigate very fully was the evidence of damage that was very clear on the outside of the White House and on the trim and balcony. And, also, most importantly, they didn’t focus on their own staff on the grounds that night.

    There is an officer named Carrie Johnson who told FBI agents later that she was underneath the trim and balcony and readied a shotgun when she heard gunfire. She thought an attack was coming over the South Lawn. She heard debris falling over her head from the balcony.

    These are all those red flags of, wow, maybe something hit the White House. But she, you know, was afraid to counter her bosses, who said to her, we have investigated this and concluded it’s something else.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

    Well, two questions very quickly then. What does that say about what is — the way the Secret Service is run, number one?  And we know it was under a different director then?  And, number two, has all this been fixed today?

  • CAROL LEONNIG:

    Well, as for the — you know, what are the — what do these things indicate, Carrie Johnson didn’t feel comfortable rebutting her bosses’ narratives.

    Officers in the Secret Service and leadership that night, that Friday night, rushed to a hasty conclusion and didn’t look very hard and didn’t ask very many questions. So it almost seems like, you know, some of the complaints that we have heard over the last several months, that the agency is a little too complacent, that it hasn’t had a serious attack or assassination attempt, and thus is sort of starting to get lulled to sleep, that’s one thing that — a worry that is raised.

    Second, that it’s a top-down leadership culture where, you know, you better toe the line and don’t mess with our thought process about what happened here. That certainly looks like it was Carrie Johnson’s experience.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it is an extraordinary report, story, and two extraordinary examples of reporting.

    We thank you very much.

    And the other part of it we didn’t even have time to talk about is the anger on the part of the president and the first lady after this incident in 2011.

    Again, great reporting, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post.

  • CAROL LEONNIG:

    Thank you, Judy.

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