The man who jumped the White House fence this month and sprinted through the front door made it much farther into the building than previously known, overpowering one Secret Service officer and running through much of the main floor, according to three people familiar with the incident.
An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through. Officers are trained that, upon learning of an intruder on the grounds – often through the alarm boxes posted around the property – they must immediately lock the front door.
After barreling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.
Gonzalez was tackled by a counterassault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.
Secret Service officials had earlier said he was quickly detained at the main entry. Agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said the office is not commenting during the ongoing investigation of the incident.
Breaches of the White House fence have become more common, but most jumpers are tackled by Secret Service officers guarding the complex before they get even a third of the way across the lawn. Gonzalez is the first person known to have jumped the fence and made it inside the executive mansion.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson has said the breach was “unacceptable” to her, and on Friday she briefed President Obama on her plans to shore up security.
Pierson is expected to face tough questions about the Gonzalez incident Tuesday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The hearing is likely to cover a number of security lapses by the agency, including new revelations published over the weekend by The Washington Post about the failure to identify and properly investigate a 2011 shooting attack on the White House.
The more detailed account of this month’s security breach comes from people who provided information about the incident to The Post and whistleblowers who contacted Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the oversight panel’s subcommittee on national security.
Chaffetz said he plans to ask Pierson how an alarm meant to alert officers to intruders could be silenced or turned down. The congressman said two people inside the agency told him that boxes were silenced because the White House usher staff, whose office is near the front door, complained that they were noisy. A Secret Service official told The Post that the usher’s office was concerned the boxes were frequently malfunctioning and unnecessarily sounding off.
The alarm boxes, which officers call “crash boxes,” are key pieces of the agency’s first-alert system, according to former agents and officials. If officers spot an intruder, they are trained to hit the large red button on the nearest box – sending an alert to every post on the complex about the location of an incursion and piping sound from that location to other boxes around the property.
“If true, the fact that crash boxes were muted to avoid being ‘disruptive’ is not due to a lack of resources or an insufficient number of checkpoints or barriers,” Chaffetz said.
He called the incident a “failure of leadership” by the Secret Service.
“The agency needs a solution that goes deeper than more fences and more people,” Chaffetz said. “It must examine what message is being sent to the men and women who protect the president when their leader sacrifices security to appease superficial concerns of White House ushers.”
The new revelations follow accounts provided to The Post last week detailing how Gonzalez’s ability to enter the White House reflected a failure of multiple levels of security at the compound. The agency relies on these successive layers as a fail-safe for protecting the president and the White House complex.
In this incident, a plainclothes surveillance team was on duty that night outside the fence, meant to spot jumpers and give early warning before they made it over. But that team did not notice Gonzalez. There was an officer in a guard booth on the North Lawn. When that officer could not reach Gonzalez, there was supposed to be an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door – all at the ready.
The dog was not released, a decision now under review. Some people familiar with the incident say the handler probably felt he could not release the dog, because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez and the dog may have attacked them instead.
Since the incident, the Secret Service has added an additional layer of temporary fencing while the agency reviews its procedures.
The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.
A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family’s formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.
President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.
Secret Service officers initially rushed to respond. One, stationed directly under the second-floor terrace where the bullets struck, drew her .357 handgun and prepared to crack open an emergency gun box. Snipers on the roof, standing just 20 feet from where one bullet struck, scanned the South Lawn through their rifle scopes for signs of an attack. With little camera surveillance on the White House perimeter, it was up to the Secret Service officers on duty to figure out what was going on.
Then came an order that surprised some of the officers. “No shots have been fired… Stand down,” a supervisor called over his radio. He said the noise was the backfire from a nearby construction vehicle.
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