Nearly two weeks after 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez, armed with a knife, forced himself into the White House, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson addressed Congress Tuesday morning on the recent security failures at the president's home. The takeaway from Pierson's hearing with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was divisive, to say the least: The Secret Service is still proud of itself for showing restraint in these security breaches, but members of Congress want to know — why don't agents just shoot intruders on sight?
Following the Sept. 19 intruder incident, the Secret Service has been patting itself on the back for showing restraint, which is really just a nice way to say they didn't fatally shoot anyone. Unfortunately, when you have police officers in America shooting at people for removing their driver's license from their pick-up truck, it's now admirable for people who have guns to not pull the trigger.
Congress, On The Other Hand...
But certain members of Congress seem to disagree, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of a House subcommittee on national security. Chaffetz has been very vocal over the last several days about Secret Service members using force on White House trespassers, even if it turns fatal. “Tremendous restraint is not what we are looking for," Chaffetz said during Tuesday's hearing. "The message should be overwhelming force."
Other members of the committee, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., echoed Chaffetz's call for the use of deadly force, assuming the worst-case scenarios that, in this day and age, may not be too far from reality. Cummings said during the hearing:
I hate to even imagine what could have happened if Gonzalez had been carrying a gun instead of a knife when he burst inside the White House. That possibility is extremely unsettling.
Cummings point is valid, though it's safe to say that if Gonzalez pulled a gun on the Secret Service agents during his invasion, he wouldn't be standing today. But should such deadly force be used every time an intruder scales the White House fence and dashes onto the expansive lawn?
What Actually Went Wrong In The White House Intrusion
The answer, which was also revealed during Tuesday's hearing is, well, no. That's because as much as Gonzalez could have been stopped by overwhelmingly force, he also could have been caught way before he got to the doors of the East Room. As members of Congress pointed out on Tuesday, the security at the White House has a host of issues, from muted alarm systems to manually locked doors.
These patterns of security glitches, most of which were caused by human error, contributed to Gonzalez's invasion. A guard reportedly muted the alarm system because of the high rate of false alarms. Without being alerted, the guard at the White House's North Portico doors didn't know to lock the front doors. In comes Gonzalez, and there you go.
Well, at least White House security has finally figured out how to successfully lock front doors.
To be sure, Secret Service agents wouldn't be going outside their protective responsibilities if they used deadly or excessive force against Gonzalez if they thought he presented an imminent threat. And as we know now, Gonzalez was armed with a knife.
Why Secret Service Didn't Shoot The Intruder
However, the agents who assessed the situation said they didn't open gunfire or send attack dogs after Gonzalez because he had no weapons in hand, nor was he wearing clothing that could conceal explosives. They also didn't want to injure innocent bystanders standing near the White House fence with stray bullets. Essentially, they did what agents are supposed to do: assess with reason and use appropriate amount of force.
Let's also not forget the deadly shooting in October 2013, when Secret Service agents shot to death an unarmed women with mental illness after she tried speeding her car through blockades at both the White House and the Capitol building. Although it's within Secret Service guidelines, outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, to shoot at suspicious vehicles in order to stop them, the agency came under fire for killing an unarmed woman.
In the days following the Sept. 19 invasion, the Secret Service agency heightened security around the White House, adding more officers and guard dogs. The agency also set up police barriers several feet back from the iconic fence, so tourist must stay back at all times. And of course, there's the new automatic locking system, ensuring that yes, Barack Obama has locked the door behind him.
Before we turn the White House into a guard tower and give Secret Service agents the power to shoot on sight, let's see how locking the doors works out — for now.
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