President Barack Obama expressed confidence Monday in the Secret Service, as authorities launched inquiries into how an armed man made it to the front door of the White House, a man with hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his nearby car and an alleged history of interest in the executive mansion.
As the Secret Service and Congress launched an investigation of security after the intruder, armed with a knife, scaled a fence and bounded into the White House, Obama praised the Secret Service during an event in the Oval Office, saying he was “grateful for all the sacrifices they make on my behalf and on my family’s behalf.”
His expression of support came as a federal prosecutor revealed that investigators found more than 800 rounds of ammunition in the car of the accused intruder, Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, along with a machete and two hatchets.
In a federal court proceeding, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Mudd said that Gonzalez’s “preoccupation with the White House and accumulation of a large amount of ammunition in apparently a short period of time represented a danger to the president.”
Authorities pointed to other ties between Gonzalez and the White House.
On Aug. 25, Mudd said, Secret Service officers questioned Gonzalez when they saw him near the White House with a hatchet stuck in his pants. They released him after searching his nearby car and finding only camping gear.
And he was already under indictment in Virginia, accused in an incident two months ago in which he also had a sawed-off shotgun, two powerful rifles, four handguns and other guns and ammunition in his Ford Bronco _ as well as a map of Washington with the White House and the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Va., circled.
Obama, who had left the White House for Camp David 10 minutes before Gonzalez jumped the fence Friday evening, was “obviously concerned” about the incident but expressed “complete confidence” in the Secret Service, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. Gonzalez was apprehended inside the White House, a location that is “not acceptable,” the Secret Service said in a press release.
The situation is the latest embarrassment for the agency and its agents, some of whom were implicated in a prostitution scandal in Colombia in 2012. Two officers were removed from Obama’s detail after allegations of misconduct last year and three were sent home in March during a presidential trip to the Netherlands after they were found intoxicated.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Monday that he invited Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to testify at a Sept. 30 hearing. He said the “significant security breaches reveal our weaknesses as well as our response capabilities to our nation’s enemies.”
The service is reviewing the incident and will look at whether more staffing is needed and whether the building’s physical security needs to be increased, Earnest said. Officials are reportedly considering expanding the White House’s security perimeter beyond the gates that surround the complex and screening tourists before they can get into the area.
Earnest would not say if the White House endorsed such an expansion, but he did note that just outside the front gate is Lafayette Park, “among the more prominent First Amendment zones in the country.”
Guarding the White House – one of the most popular tourist destinations in the nation’s capital – is “complicated business,” Earnest said. Thousands of visitors tour the historic building daily, it serves as a “large office building” for hundreds of staffers and journalists who work there, and it serves as home for the president and his family.
The review began Friday night and is expected to be conducted with “a sense of urgency,” said Earnest, who acknowledged that any change in security arrangements could be complicated by the number of agencies that have jurisdiction in the area, including the Secret Service, the U.S. Park Police and the Metropolitan Washington police department.
Obama was briefed on the incident “multiple times” on Friday and updated over the weekend, Earnest said. His chief of staff and deputy chief of staff have also been in frequent contact with Secret Service personnel to discuss the incident and the review, Earnest said.
Among the issues to be reviewed are why agents did not release the service’s trained dogs on the intruder and the status of the unlocked front door of the North Portico – where presidents traditionally greet heads of state arriving for formal dinners.
Those doors are also often used by tourists who tour the White House, as well as White House staffers, Earnest said.
“I can tell you that after Friday night’s incident, that when the door is not in use, that it will be secure,” he said.
The Secret Service also has beefed up foot patrols near the fence line of the White House complex, deployed additional surveillance and stepped-up training for officers, Earnest said. An increased presence at the White House could be seen Monday, including an officer standing on the front steps of the North Portico.
Earnest said he expected a “pretty broad look at a wide range of White House security procedures to ensure that the Secret Service is accomplishing their mission of protecting the president and the first family.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he planned to review the findings of the review with Secret Service Director Pierson and the White House, but he cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“I encourage all of us to not rush to judgment about the event and not second-guess the judgment of security officers who had only seconds to act, until all the facts are in,” Johnson said. He noted that the Secret Service this week is responsible for protecting 140 heads of state or government convening at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
“Last month the Secret Service provided protection for over 46 world leaders who convened in Washington for the Africa Summit, and it did so flawlessly and without incident,” Johnson said. “There is virtually no other protection service in the world that could accomplish these things.”