How the White House intruder story came out and what we can expect next
No bungling bureaucracy will last very long once insiders start anonymously dishing dirt to the press, a lesson currently being taught to Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. Anonymous sources from the Secret Service, its alumni, and insiders who have been read-in on current investigations are taking the agency apart brick-by-brick this month with their leaks to the Washington Post about the White House fence-jumper and the White House shooter.
Ever since Omar J. Gonzalez scaled the nearly 8-foot-high pointed fence, raced 70 yards to the White House front door, and entered untouched, the Post has been pants-ing the Secret Service at regular intervals. First a Secret Service spokesman told the paper on Sept. 20 that Gonzalez was unarmed and arrested just inside the front door. Uh-uh.
The paper’s Sept. 30 edition reported, citing “three people familiar with the incident,” “a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” and “people who provided information about the incident to the Washington Post and whistleblowers who contacted U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah),” that Gonzalez had made it more than 100 feet into the White House, running past the stairs to the presidential family’s living quarters, until he was subdued in the East Room by a guard. Contradicting the original Secret Service spokesman’s comment, it turns out that Gonzalez was armed with a knife.
Anonymous sources also conveyed to the primary Post reporter on the story, Carol D. Leonnig, reams about the agency’s clumsy handling of a November 2011 incident in which Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez shot up the White House as if he was taking target practice. Leonnig’s story, in the Sept. 28 edition, says that it took the Secret Service four days to figure out that the White House had been hit, even though officers heard the shots and scrambled to attention. The discovery of the damage was made by a housekeeper. The story broadened its sourcing to “agents, investigators and other government officials with knowledge about the shooting” and “hundreds of pages of documents, including transcripts of interviews with officers on duty that night,” and recordings of officers’ radio transmissions.
The Post continues to give the Secret Service the business, reporting online today that “according to people familiar with the incident,” Gonzalez was tackled by an off-duty officer who “could easily have been outside or on his way home.”
Except for Chaffetz’s comments and the criminal charges filed, almost all of the human sources for the Post coverage have been unnamed, and the information published has been beyond damaging. “Crash boxes,” which are supposed to sound an alarm should an intruder intrude on the White House, have been muted or turned down so as not to disturb the White House usher staff. Gonzalez’s dash went unnoticed by the plainclothes surveillance team on duty outside the fence. The attack dog was not unleashed. And so on.
Ordinarily, I am critical of anonymously sourced information because, among other reasons, it games the press to deliver a message to the world that benefits the anonymous speakers. But I make exceptions when the anonymous information is this specific; can potentially be falsified by other reporters or sources; and is not refuted by the authorities it attacks. The Secret Service has yet to challenge the Post‘s findings. The Secret Service’s director, Pierson, made no effort to do so today in a congressional hearing on her agency’s lapses. And the New York Times is confirming the Post reports with its anonymous sources.
The Secret Service attempted in early reports to appear on top of things. Anonymous agency sources told the Times (Sept. 22 edition) of plans to screen tourists blocks away from the White House before they could enter the building’s proximity. The attribution the Times provides for that information reads like a punch-line against the most recent Post revelation: “The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation or security measures under consideration.” A more accurate attribution would be, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in hopes that their comments about perimeter shifting would divert discussion from the agency’s amateurism.
A second line of defense deployed by agency defenders has been to blame its poor performance on low “morale.” Joe Davidson, who writes a Post column about the federal workplace, devoted a whole column (Sept. 26) to falling morale at the Secret Service. But not even Davidson, a reliable booster of all things federal, can get behind this evasion. The poor morale excuse doesn’t spread wide enough to explain the recent breakdown of White House security, the Secret Service agents who partied with Colombian prostitutes, or those who passed out drunk in Amsterdam. (Not to mention the Secret Service officer who allegedly left a bullet in a hotel room across from the White House while visiting a woman he met in the hotel’s bar).
If Pierson and her team are to survive this crisis, they’ll need a dramatic news event (a tsunami, Middle East turmoil, or maybe a royal birth) to drive the story off of Page One and give them breathing room. Absent that, the agency’s leaders will have to mount a press counter-offensive to save themselves. Traditionally, the players in Washington scandals or turf battles end up drafting competing news organizations to tell their sides of the story, like Fox News Channel did for the Benghazi doubters. Pierson doesn’t need to reverse the momentum to survive, just stall it or deflect it.
First, she’ll need a sympathetic reporter — not a total shill, of course — but somebody who will ferry her team’s anonymous complaints into print. Pierson, who has led the Secret Service for only 18 months, can (with the help of her allies) feed the press damning information about the previous leadership and position herself not as a bad boss but as the savior of the once-elite agency. She and her allies can blame the Secret Service’s deterioration on its transfer in March 2003 from the Department of the Treasury to everybody’s least-favorite federal department, the ding-dongs at Homeland Security. The brilliance of the Homeland Security dodge would be that there might be some truth in it. See this Carol D. Leonnig story from earlier this year about perfidy at the department.
The Times would be an excellent venue for such a Pierson gambit, except its reporters will never go for it. Oh, sure, the paper happily would cook a banquet from whatever juicy ingredients anonymous Secret Service sources might want to offer, but it’s too proud to serve pure swill. Look for Pierson’s defense to come from a news operation below the Post or the Times. Maybe a magazine or a website, another daily, or maybe a columnist willing to say that Pierson is the one to clean up the mess. With mountains of sensitive reports and inside dope to leak, Pierson and her allies could be in the driving seat of this scandal in a couple of news cycles.
I prefer the passenger seat. Send directions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed remembers when President Richard Nixon would take the form of a werewolf to leap over the White House fence and toward the Watergate. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: Members of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service patrol Pennsylvania Avenue outside the North Lawn of the White House in Washington September 29, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst