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White House Needs More Shoes on the Ground

Comment

He is a threat assessment expert who has worked with high U.S. government security agencies for many years. He is an expert on how the Secret Service and other federal agencies operate to protect our top leaders.

He is not a happy man.

"There has been a leakage of the best and most balanced agents from the Secret Service," he told me. "We have been left with an overall force that has less experience and poorer judgment.

"The agents are way under headcount, as well. They have more work, more stress, more difficulty — and all operating under a cloud of scandal."

That cloud of scandal includes agents allegedly cavorting with hookers in South America and falling down drunk in Holland. It also includes attacks on the White House itself, which have exposed bungles and misjudgments by Secret Service personnel.

"We can't just keep doing this," my source said. "And this is the tip of the iceberg."

The White House has been called the people's house, but that doesn't mean people get to walk into it whenever they want.

Especially if they have a knife in their pocket and 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets and a machete in their car, as recently occurred.

As the director of the Secret Service testified Tuesday, 16 people have climbed over the White House fence in the past five years, including six this year.

So do you think they might have started locking the front doors at the White House — you know, the way most people in America lock their front doors at home?

Naw.

In fact, the White House did not install automatic door locks until very recently — and only after a guy climbed over the fence, crossed 70 yards of lawn, pushed open the unlocked doors, knocked over an agent and then ran almost the entire length of the 80-foot East Room before being stopped and taken into custody.

Actually, I am surprised they didn't find him behind the desk in the Oval Office, sipping a scotch, negotiating a treaty with Vladimir Putin and trying to give himself a presidential pardon.

We need boots on the ground. At the White House. And I don't mean military boots. I mean the boots — OK, shoes — of Secret Service agents armed with new thinking and new supervisors. The agents also need a new esprit de corps.

"A big problem is money," my source said. "We are talking about the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Capitol Police, too. People who protect every branch of government have been systematically hurt by budget cuts."

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson told a congressional committee Tuesday, "We are more than 550 people below our optimal level."

All agencies want more money and more people, of course.

But when it comes to cost cutting, I wish we could start with the cost of congressional junkets and staff rather than the cost of law enforcement agents.

The attack on the White House last week, however, appears to have been caused by not a lack of money but a massive lack of good judgment.

The Secret Service keeps referring to "fence jumpers," but unless you are an Olympian, I doubt you can "jump" the White House fence. It is 7 feet 6 inches tall. (The Olympic high jump record is just over 8 feet.) The iron bars are set in sandstone, which gives people a little boost as they pull themselves up and clamber over it while trying not to get impaled on the decorative spear points.

This slows people down and allows the snipers on the White House roof to get a good bead on them.

"There are two snipers on the roof," my source said. "One has really powerful binoculars, and he is carefully describing the intruder to the other agent, who has a rifle. Does the intruder look like he possibly has explosives? Does he look like he has a gun? At all times, the agent with the rifle has the intruder in his sights."

So what happened last week with the intruder who got way inside the White House?

"I can't imagine what happened unless somebody completely — and I mean completely — dropped the ball," my source said. "And I haven't heard a persuasive answer as to why they didn't release the dogs. A dog easily could have taken the guy down. And the agents have more than one dog."

Did I forget the dogs? The White House has dogs. Don't try to pet them.

But the dogs were not let loose, and the doors were not locked, and the alarm inside the White House had been disabled. And all this came after the White House was sprayed with 11 bullets by a gunman in 2011. That whole thing had been hushed up but was revealed recently by Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post, who also revealed that President Barack Obama received three times as many threats in his first year in office as his predecessors.

So this is serious stuff. This is not just about bureaucracy and budgets and bungling.

"Every federal law enforcement agency is significantly worse off in carrying out their mission than five years ago," my source said. "And the Secret Service's ability to focus on its mission has been degraded."

One of the Secret Service's top missions is to keep our president and his family alive and well. And we can't ever lose sight of that.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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