The small army of Secret Service agents guarding the White House carry a wide range of weapons and get training on how to repel sophisticated armed assaults – so why did no one shoot the intruder who jumped the fence on Friday and got all the way to the mansion’s doors?
Officials inside the storied agency describe astonishment and embarrassment that no one tackled the suspect — identified as Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas — before he reached the grand columned entrance that looks out at Pennsylvania avenue. But they also defend the decision to hold their fire.
“This wasn’t a military-style assault. He had no bag, no backpack, no visible weapons. And from the early reports from the officers he seemed to be mentally disturbed,” one insider told Yahoo News.
President Obama and his family had just departed the White House for the Camp David retreat just outside Washington in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
“That was probably a part of it – a small part,” said the insider, who requested anonymity to describe the agency’s inner workings candidly.
A more important consideration may have been the presence of tourists at the mansion’s north fence line, where Gonzales entered the compound. Uniformed agents worked to clear the area quickly, but officers responding to the incident likely pondered the potential of a stray shot or a through-and-through in which a bullet could pass through the target and hit a bystander.
“You’re accountable for every round. You need to think about not just the target but what’s behind the target,” the insider said.
Friday’s incident was different from an October stand-off in which Secret Service and Capitol Police fatally shot a Connecticut woman, Miriam Carey, after a high-speed chase from the White House to the Capitol. She was hit with five shots in the neck and torso after she started to drive her car towards a Capitol Police officer, potentially endangering them.
The Secret Service is, however, looking into why officers did not release a specially trained dog. The canine can be seen in photographs of Secret Service agents taking down a man who jumped the White House fence on Sept. 11, 2014.
“We have to show restraint. You have to have the proper restraint. Is it too much restraint not to release that dog?” the insider said.
Every officer involved in Friday’s incident will be questioned about what happened and about the decisions they took, according to Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan.
“Ultimately, we’re not satisfied where he was arrested,” Donovan said.
Ultimately, authorities have to balance security concerns with the public’s interest in getting close to the White House. They reluctantly closed the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the mansion after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building.
“I know how to stop fence-jumpers,” the insider said. “We close Pennsylvania Avenue to pedestrians completely and we put barbed wire on top of the fence.”
“But that’s not reasonable,” the source added. “We want Americans to be able to come up to that fence line and take pictures and have fun and enjoy it.”