In response to recent security breaches, the Secret Service requested funding to construct a White House replica on its training complex in Maryland. The agency, which is responsible for protecting the president and his family, the vice president, and visiting foreign dignitaries, has made headlines over the past couple years for allowing security lapses, bungling its response to threats, and failing to control agents’ behavior abroad. Constructing a model of the White House complex — which would include the residence’s facade, the East and the West Wings, and the surrounding gardens and streets — is expected to cost around $8 million.
Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Secret Service director Joseph Clancy told lawmakers that there's a huge benefit from training in a similar environment to the one that they operate in. He testified:
We train on a parking lot basically. We don't have the bushes, we don't have the fountains, we don't get a realistic look at the White House. It’s important to have a true replica of what the White House is so we can do a better job of this integrated training between our uniform division officers, our agents and our tactical teams.
The facility would be added to the Secret Service’s 500-acre training complex in Beltsville, Maryland. The budget request adheres to the recommended changes suggested by an internal investigation into the agency’s performance and perceived failures.
The past few years have not been smooth sailing for the nation’s security team. Bad headlines seemed to follow the agency around the globe. In Colombia, agents were accused of seeking out prostitutes during a presidential trip in 2012. Last March in Amsterdam, two agents were found drunk in the hotel. One had passed out in the hallway outside his room and had to be put to bed by the hotel staff.
But the biggest breaches of security took place at the White House itself. In November 2011, a retired Air Force veteran fired at least seven shots from a semiautomatic rifle into the building from a parked car. While security team initially responded to reports of a gunman, one of the superior agents told everyone to stand down after deciding it had been a car backfiring. It was four days later when a member of the housekeeping staff found the debris left from the bullet impacts outside. Not only did the Secret Service fail to respond appropriately to the threat, but they also failed to alert the president or his family as to what had happened.
At the time of the gunshots, the president and first lady were not home, but their youngest daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother remained in the residence. When the first lady caught wind of the shooting, she took then-Secret Service director Mark Sullivan to task so loudly that people could hear her raised voice through closed doors. Her fears are warranted – according to The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, Obama has received triple the amount of threats that his antecedents did.
And just last September, an Iraqi war veteran managed to scale the fence, race across the North Lawn, enter an unlocked door and barrel past the stairway to the family residence and into the East Room before he was tackled and stopped by an off-duty Secret Service agent. While the Secret Service initially reported that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was unarmed, it later surfaced that he had been carrying a 3.5-inch knife in his front pocket.
The agency’s public failings have quickly become political fodder, with lawmakers and talking heads taking the lapses to the top of the news cycle. To Fox News, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said of the East Room visitor:
This is absolutely inexcusable. There can be a lot of conspiracies against the president — a lot of very complex assassination plots. This is the most basic, the most simple type of procedure and how anyone especially in the days of [the Islamic State] can actually get into the White House without being stopped is inexcusable.
Former agency director Julia Pierson, who was appointed in March 2013 to clean house, ended up resigning last September in the fall-out. On Tuesday, her replacement, Clancy, faced withering questions from congressional members about how to turn the agency around. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told Clancy during the hearing:
You can’t run an agency like this, for God sakes. I am disappointed that you have not waged your own vigorous, tough investigation of an incident that occurred on White House grounds.
Presumably, building a fake White House facade will allow agents to practice taking down armed intruders who bust in through the front door so that they won’t be as slow to react next time. Whether training on a simulacrum of the North Lawn will prevent Secret Service agents from making dumb decisions with alcohol abroad is another story.
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