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Shortly after President Barack Obama and his family left the White House aboard Marine One on Friday evening, a fence jumper armed with a knife made it all the way through the front door of the residence before the Secret Service intercepted him in the North Portico. The incident is the latest in a series of problems plaguing the agency that’s tasked with the welfare of the president and his family. We consider the state of security at the White House and the balance between security and public access in a city filled with government buildings.
- Ronald Kessler Journalist; and author "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect" (Crown)
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with the managing partner of D.C. United, Jason Levy, and about the future prospects for a new soccer stadium in Washington, D.C. We'll be live video streaming that segment, so you'll be able to join it at our website, kojoshow.org. But first, on Friday night, President Obama and his daughters walked out of the White House, boarded his Marine One Helicopter and lifted off for Camp David.
MR. KOJO NNAMDITen minutes later on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the White House, an Iraq War vet hopped over the fence, ran across the lawn and walked through the unlocked front door of the First Family's residence. Inside the White House, a secret service agent apprehended him. The incident prompting a new wave of criticism about the performance of the secret service and new debates about where to draw the line between security and public access for the many government buildings in the nation's capital.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us by phone to talk about this is Ronald Kessler. He is the author of "The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents." Ronald Kessler, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. RONALD KESSLERThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the White House needs a bigger buffer to keep the public farther from the President's home? What's the right balance between security and public access of government buildings in D.C.? You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or call us at 800-433-8850. Ron Kessler, on Friday evening, a man armed with a three-inch knife jumped the fence, ran across the lawn and entered the White House where a secret service agent intercepted him. In your view, how should the secret service have responded to that intruder?
KESSLERWell, first, they should have unleashed dogs and they would take down the intruder. They've done that many times in the past. They obviously were either, you know, literally asleep. That does happen. Or certainly not paying attention. One of the problems is there's been high turnover, low morale. Secret service is making them work tremendous overtime hours, so they're tired. But secondly, failing that, they should have killed him. Because the secret service has wide latitude under court rulings, wider latitude than other law enforcement, to use deadly force.
KESSLERAnd the reason is, you simply can't wait to see if this guy actually has an explosive or has weapons of mass destruction or has a weapon before it's too late. And if you wait until he's inside the White House, and this is something that's never happened before in the history of the White House, as long as it's been protected the secret service. Then, he could have blown up the White House and it would be too late. So, and when the secret service issued this statement saying that restraint was exercised by the uniformed officers, that is a joke.
KESSLERYou know, they seem to be saying that they did a good job. I have very high ranking FBI sources who are not only horrified by what happened, are laughing at that secret service statement and that really tells you how arrogant the secret service is if they think we're such fools that we can't see that that's a ridiculous statement to make.
NNAMDIWhat do you say if the secret service says, and obviously, this is not the secret service speaking, but if the secret service spoke and said, well, the restraint paid off. This individual was not carrying any bombs. This individual did not pose a threat the President of the United States. This individual, it may turn out, is simply a mentally disturbed military war veteran.
KESSLERWell, you know, if in fact he did have explosives, we would have a dead President and he wouldn't be saying, I have confidence in the secret service, because he would be dead. And that's the choice. You know, you can say, well, maybe we shouldn't have metal detectors at airports, because well, maybe most of those people are fine. And especially in this day and age, with ISIL, which would love to take out the President, and they could have 20 terrorists converge on the White House with grenades. We simply cannot take a chance, unless you want to take the chance of having an assassination.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ronald Kessler, author of the "The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents." We're talking about this weekend's security breach at the White House, in which an individual with a knife was actually able to enter the White House. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you see as being the right balance between security and public access at the White House? 800-433-8850. Ronald Kessler, what steps do you think the secret service should take now to make sure something like this does not happen again?
KESSLERThey definitely should extend the barrier around the perimeter, add metal detectors for people who do want to go on the -- go close to the White House. But the President, you know, has plenty of -- there's plenty of access to the President through TV, through Twitter. There's no, this is some imaginary idea that somehow walking in front of the President -- of the White House is going to give access to bystanders. It doesn't. And the other thing is that the Director of the Secret Service needs to be replaced by Obama, who constantly issues statements saying that he has confidence in the secret service.
KESSLEREven though, over and over again, they show that they're failures, going back to when (unintelligible) crashed the State Dinner at the White House, along with a third intruder, which, the story I broke, and then the agents who hire prostitutes in Colombia, another story I broke. Over and over again, President Obama says he has confidence in the secret service. And that is a problem. If this were a private organization, the head of it would have been replaced long ago.
KESSLERThat's the only way to change what is a deeper problem in the secret service, that's led to all these obvious issues. And that is a culture within secret service management of arrogance and we make do with less. We're the great secret service. The -- any agency who points out deficiencies are punished. It's a very corrupting atmosphere. The whole place needs to be shaken up by someone from the outside who doesn't have any allegiances to agents, who hasn't grown up in this culture, in order to really shake up the secret service.
NNAMDIWell, Friday's fence jumper raises a long standing debate in Washington over security versus public access. What's the reality today, in terms of the security requirements for the President and other top government officials? How do you balance that with a desire for public access to federal buildings? You already pointed out that walking in front of the White House obviously doesn't give you access, but there are those who believe that as a symbolism of a free and democratic country, you don't want the President to look as if he's living inside of a bunker.
KESSLERWell, he is living inside a bunker. And tough luck. You know, it's either that or we have an assassination, which nullifies democracy. Let's wake up. You know, this is an age of terrorism. This is an age where deranged people would love to take out the President and, you know, we either take the measures that are necessary to actually protect him, or we are going to have a cataclysmic assassination in this country.
NNAMDIRonald Kessler. He is author of "The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents." Ronald Kessler, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe turn now to Tom Sherwood, who is our resident analyst here at the Politics Hour on Fridays, as he's an NBC 4 reporter. And the columnist for the Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood also joins us by phone. Tom, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM SHERWOODHappy to be here. I'm trying to catch my breath over what Ron Kessler just said. That he -- tough luck. We just have to close that area because it's dangerous.
NNAMDITough luck. He says the President is or should be living in a bunker.
SHERWOODI'm astonished at the idea to minimize access to the people's house. That people should not be able to walk up to the fence and take a picture with their family or their grandparents or their children or their wounded war veteran. Because the secret service inside the White House failed to do its job. I'm astonished by it. I had a lot of respect for Ron Kessler. And I have a lot of respect for the tough job of 24/7 security. I mean, it's just demanding. And that kind of -- what I call the boredom fatigue, when officers are standing there.
SHERWOODYou know, they move the officers around. They switch them up. They make them ride segues. They have to walk. They change to stay awake and alert. But clearly, inside the White House, somebody tweeted this weekend. That, so, we should stop allowing the tourists and the veterans and the families and all those access to their house because the security inside the White House fence failed. If they had released the dog, we wouldn't even -- you would be talking about something else right now.
NNAMDIYes. Indeed we would be talking about something else right now, had they done their job. But some people, like you, are complaining that because the secret service apparently failed to do its job, they want the American people to pay by having a bigger buffer zone between the White House and the public by being kept farther away from the White House. I know your feelings about that, but please share them with the rest of our audience.
SHERWOODWell, where does that stop? Do we then have security zones? We closed Pennsylvania Ave. Bombs went off in Oklahoma City in 1996 and we closed streets in Washington, including in front of the White House and E Street behind it, cutting off commerce of the nation's capital. We've closed the two streets alongside Lafayette Park. I mean, how much do you shut down? I mean, at some point, we end up having a Disneyland on the Potomac or we have security like the casino in the capital with a billion cameras and no, you can't come here and you can't go there.
SHERWOODI just think, while the secret service has an important job, one of the jobs is to allow the freedom of Americans to be expressed. I mean, we cannot change the capital and make it into a bunker, a fortress. Capitol Hill has proposed -- you know, there have been proposals to buy up houses around Capitol Hill and the Congress and close them off to all vehicle traffic and create an even more secure zone. I just find it a never ending quest that really insults, I think, the American freedom that we all cherish.
NNAMDILet's see what some of our callers have to say. Here is J.C. in Washington, D.C. J.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
J.C.Hi Kojo. I was just wanting a clarification from Ron Kessler. If, when, a couple of weeks ago, there was a toddler who slipped through the fence. And now we have a grown adult who made it all the way up to the White House front door. And his ultimate decision would be to shoot this guy. So should we shoot toddlers also, or anybody just looking for a joyride to get across the fence? So, I just wanted to know where the clarification was.
NNAMDIWell, Ron Kessler is not on the phone any longer. He had to go, but we're talking with Tom Sherwood. Tom what would you say in response to J.C.?
SHERWOODWell, that's a very important point. A small child, somehow wedges himself or herself through the fence. Well then, fix the fence. I mean, the police officers -- where were the police officers to -- I think someone reported the Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, you know, said the dog should have been released within four seconds of someone on the property without clearance. Now, you don't release, I don't think, you release a dog on a four-year-old. We'll leave that to NFL people.
SHERWOODBut, what you do is you fix the fence so that someone can't wedge through it. I mean, it seems to me there are simple things around the White House itself that can be done, that don't require taking up more property and closing off the American people from their government.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, J.C. We move on to Mark in Sterling, Virginia. Mark, your turn.
MARKOkay. Thanks, Kojo. So, you know, look, it seems simple to me. The requirement is to protect the President. Period. So if you have an infant who's not a threat, that's a different discussion. If you've got a guy running full speed towards the White House, that is a problem. And by the way, this could very well have been a test to see what our response would be in the event that someone penetrates the perimeter of the White House.
NNAMDIAnd in your view, the secret service failed that test.
MARKThey ultimately -- they utterly failed. They did a miserable job. So, you know, what if they attacked us in a similar way with multiple attack routes at multiple entrance points to the White House, what then is the Secret Service going to do? And I agree with Kessler that at some point deadly force may be the only solution. If I release the dog, the dog (unintelligible) and the guy is within 10, 20 feet of a portal giving him access to the White House and potentially the president, he's got to be taken down.
NNAMDISo you see this as the fault of the Secret Service?
MARKOf course, it's their fault.
NNAMDIAnd, Tom -- Tom Sherwood, Mark and others, and Ron Kessler of course, see this clearly as the fault of the Secret Service.
SHERWOODWell, there's no doubt. I think the Secret Service itself would tell you that it's embarrassed by what's happened and it wants to fix it. But fixing it doesn't mean expanding the sanitized zone where we are no longer a nation's capital. I mean, somebody tweeted today, "It looks like the city is dangerous. Maybe the White House should move out of the city." I mean, at some point, you have to focus on the procedures they have in place there.
SHERWOODThey have officers with guns. They have a trained attack dog. They have binoculars. They have snipers on the roof. They have all kinds of security theater equipment there. It didn't work this time because this guy ran 70 yards. I mean, the Red Skins could have used him on Sunday. I mean, 70 yards and he gets inside the door. What if the president been on the other side of the door?
SHERWOODI mean, I just find it astonishing that we're talking about what's happening outside the fence when it seems to me as an analyst the focus ought to be on what's happening inside the fence.
NNAMDIWell, you suggested that maybe they should change the fence and so that little kids cannot squeeze through the bars. Larry in Washington, D.C. has what some people might consider to be an obvious question. Larry, you're on the air, go ahead please.
LARRYYes. I would hate to see the security zone around the White House, where already we've got Pennsylvania and East Street and other streets blocked. So it seems the common sense solution is, why not lock the front door of the White House? Everybody else in D.C. locks their front door.
NNAMDIWe had a caller Anne, Tom, who couldn't stay on the line who says, "I live in northwest in Washington, I lock my front door."
SHERWOODYes. But, you know, if a person has a bomb, the door being locked doesn't matter -- if there's a person that's got bombed strapped in to her -- to his or her body. And that's interesting, but maybe if lock the door usually there's a Marine standing there, isn't there? But anyway, it's -- that, you know, you don't have to lock that door. I mean, that's really the last sign of defense if you have to lock the door to the White House.
SHERWOODI mean, there is a large -- I apologize for not knowing how much there is. There is a large space of land around the White House. Are we going to close Massachusetts Avenue because that street runs along the vice president's compound? Are we going to close parts of Calvert Street, I think it is, whatever it is that runs along the back side of the White House? I mean, how much do we close down to be safe?
SHERWOODI mean, I realized it's a different era, but Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying that those who would give up freedom for security deserve neither. And just -- you have to say, how big can the security zone be?
NNAMDIWell, here is Mike in Tyson's Corner, Va. Mike has a different kind of argument. As in, why are we being so hard on the Secret Service? But, Mike, your turn.
MIKEYeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call. My questions are that why everybody is taking such a tough on Secret Service? They have, like, hundreds of Secret Service around the White House and everybody knows that if this guy jumped from the fence, he will not enter inside the White House because there's a Secret Service by the gate. Everybody knows that. And also, why we should close all the roads, you know, if, you know, somebody out of the blue...
NNAMDIMike -- well, Mike, this -- Mike, Mike, this guy actually did enter the White House.
MIKENo, the thing is that they jumped and maybe that in front of the door, you know. If he entered inside the White House and go inside the door.
NNAMDIYes, he did.
MIKEOkay. In that case, then I don't have no problem.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much, Mike.
SHERWOODWell, you know, the excuse is there's two -- there's the uniformed division of Secret Service, which is the patrol, the security guard aspect and they do a lot more than just security guard. There's that. There's also the agents who are assigned there. It is a secure compound. This is a lapse of performance by the Secret Service. I think they will say that themselves. They are embarrassed. But the question is, who pays the price? The public or the Secret Service for not fixing its procedure?
NNAMDIWhat is your view about how this is likely to play out? Are we likely to see that bigger security perimeter as a result of Friday's breach or will...
SHERWOODWell, even down -- well, right now, downtown, there's more -- look at -- somebody was telling me that the little security stand. They're checking out people more and, of course, there's a lot more officers standing around. I think the cow's already out of the barn as far as the next couple of days. But, you know, there are people, mentally unstable people, who having seen this on TV might come and try to do it again.
SHERWOODYou know, try to get in on the action. It -- it's an ongoing 24/7 second to second worry about protecting the president of the United States. That does not mean that we have to keep closing down the freedom around our national monuments. Terrorists who walk up to the Washington Monument and blow it up and then make it fall over. What are we going to do? Put fencing around the Washington Monument?
SHERWOODAre we going to close off Jefferson Memorial? Are we going to close Rock Creek Park, Independence Avenue? That's what -- I mean, it's just -- to me, I think the idea is not to close more but to secure what we already have closed.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he's our resident analyst here on the politics hour. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current newspapers. Tom, thank you for joining us.
SHERWOODThank you very much. Thank you for inviting me on today. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about the future of D.C. United not in Major League Soccer but in the District of Columbia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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