The Secret Service scandals, explained — (VOX Politics)

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VOX Politics

Updated by Dylan Matthews  @dylanmatt

March 14, 2015, 12:57 p.m. ET

The Secret Service scandals, explained:  

What happened in the case of the guy running into the White House with a knife?

On September 19th, Omar Gonzalez, carrying a knife, jumped the White House fence, rushed through the front door and ran into the building’s East Room (which the White House website states is “used for large gatherings, such as press conferences, bill-signing ceremonies, after-dinner entertaining, concerts, weddings, funerals, and award presentations”) before being tackled at the doorway from the East Room into the Green Room (traditionally used as “a parlor for teas and receptions”) by a Secret Service agent. That’s according to the most recent version of events, recounted by three “people familiar with the incident” to Leonnig.

His trajectory is shown by this GIF made by Vox’s Adam Baumgartner:

In its initial statement about the incident, the Secret Service stated that Gonzalez “was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors,” which seems to imply that he was stopped shortly after entering the building, when he in fact ran a fair bit into the White House before being stopped, as Leonnig uncovered. Leonnig later learned that the man who tackled Gonzalez was off-duty at the time.

Gonzalez made his run at about 7:20 PM, while President Obama, his daughters, and a family friend had taken a helicopter to Camp David at 7:05 PM.

How was the intrusion not stopped earlier?

One major security lapse, Leonnig reports, was the failure to issue an alarm as soon as Gonzalez made it into the building. Secret Service agents are supposed to hit alarm boxes known as “crash boxes” when they spot an intruder, which triggers an alarm to every post at the White House, and provides other agents with information on where the intrusion occurred.

The boxes were silenced at the time of the Gonzalez incident. Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, whose House Oversight subcommittee on Homeland Security is investigating the breach, told Leonnig that two sources in the agency told him the White House usher staff complained about the noise. Leonnig quotes a Secret Service official saying that the usher staff was concerned the boxes were “frequently malfunctioning and unnecessarily sounding off.”

There were some other failures as well. A plainclothes surveillance team outside the White House didn’t notice that Gonzalez had jumped the fence and so didn’t alert agents inside the compound. An officer in a guard booth on the lawn couldn’t reach Gonzalez. The next layer of protection was supposed to consist of “an attack dog, a specialized SWAT team and a guard at the front door.”

Leonnig and David Fahrenthold report there was no guard at the door, the SWAT team “didn’t react in time” and “was trailing Gonzalez” when he made it to the front door, and the attack dog was never released. “Some people familiar with the incident say the handler likely felt he could not release the dog because so many officers were in pursuit of Gonzalez, and the dog may have attacked them instead,” Leonnig writes.

Who is Omar Gonzalez, the intruder?

Gonzalez, 42, is a Puerto Rico-born Army vet, serving first from 1997 to 2003 and then again from 2005 to 2012, including an October 2006 to January 2008 tour in Iraq. He eventually had to have part of his foot amputated after injuries from an IED explosion. A report in the Los Angeles Times talking to his family found that Gonzalez has been treated for PTSD and depression since coming home from Iraq, where he grew disillusioned by the mission.

Gonzalez has had nightmares and insomnia and was, his family told the Times, taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. His ex-wife told the Times that he began “placing guns behind every door in the house and carrying a sidearm on his hip” and kept talking about how “‘they’ were watching him, ‘they’ were trying to poison him.” She left him in 2010 and divorced him earlier this year. The sight of children began to disturb him, as he had seen children equipped with bombs when he was in Iraq.

He is reported to have been homeless and living near his former base at Ft. Hood, in Killeen, Texas. A former neighbor told the LA Times that she “last saw [Gonzalez] at a park, where she said he told her he was living out of his truck at a Ft. Hood campground,” while a family member said he has been “homeless and living alone in the wild and in campgrounds with his two pet dogs for the last two years.”

Gonzalez was carrying a “Spyderco VG-10 folding knife with a three-and-a-half inch serrated blade” when he entered the White House. After searching his car, authorities found 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets, and a machete.

This wasn’t Gonzalez’s first run-in with the police. He was stopped outside the White House last month when Secret Service agents found a hatchet in his waistband, but was let go when he allowed a search of his car and no other weapons were found. In July, he was involved in a high-speed chase with police, who found 11 guns (4 pistols, 4 rifles, 2 shotguns, and a revolver) and a map of the White House in his car. He was charged with “reckless driving, one felony count of eluding police and possession of a sawed-off shotgun.”

Gonzalez’s motivations are unclear, but prosecutors claim he told a Secret Service agent that “he was concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing and needed to get the information to the president of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people.”

On Friday, March 13, 2015, Gonzalez pled guilty to two charges — unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a dangerous weapon and assaulting, resisting or impeding certain officers — as part of a plea deal in which federal prosecutors are recommending a sentence of 12 to 18 months.