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The Secret Service scandals, explained

An additional security barrier outside the White House, in light of the Omar Gonzalez incident.
An additional security barrier outside the White House, in light of the Omar Gonzalez incident.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

High-ranking agents in the Secret Service allegedly drove drunk through a crime scene at the White House on March 4, hitting a temporary barricade before speeding off. The agents, who were believed to be drunk, apparently drove directly next to a suspicious package dropped by a woman who had announced "I'm holding an [unspecified expletive] bomb." It turned out to be a book, according to a report by the Washington Post's Carol Leonnig and Peter Hermann.

The incident follows several others uncovered by Leonnig and her colleagues in recent months involving security failures by the Secret Service, including Secret Service agents and a White House volunteer allegedly hiring prostitutes in Colombia, a White House fence-jumper who made it fairly far into the building, sniper shots that the Service didn't know hit the White House until four days later, and an incident where a man carrying a gun was let into an elevator with President Obama.

Here are the basics of the Secret Service scandals as they stand today.

What was the Secret Service/White House prostitution scandal?


Cartagena, Colombia at night. (Luz Adriana Villa)

The story here begins in April 2012, when President Obama traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas. While there, a number of Secret Service agents, DEA agents, and members of the armed forces assigned to the president's security detail brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms. The respective agencies ran their own investigations and agreed upon punishments. The three DEA agents who hired prostitutes were reprimanded but kept their jobs; ten Secret Service agents lost their jobs, either through dismissal, early retirement, or forced resignation; and twelve service members were either nonjudicially punished, reprimanded, or asked for courts-martial.

While the story got substantial press coverage, it hadn't take on much political significance until Leonnig and David Nakamura's report in the Washington Post, which suggested that the White House counsel's office and Department of Homeland Security willfully ignored evidence implicating a member of the President's advance team. Leonnig and Nakamura discovered that Secret Service investigators found evidence that a member of the advance team, a then-Yale law student named Jonathan Dach, had hired a prostitute and brought her back to his hotel room on the night of April 3, a week before the Secret Service/DEA agents and service members hired prostitutes.

Dach was not a White House employee but a "volunteer who helped coordinate drivers for the White House travel office," Leonnig and Nakamura report; he was reimbursed for expenses and given a per diem. He currently works on contract as "a policy adviser in the Office on Global Women’s Issues at the State Department."

The findings were relayed from then-Secret Service director Mark Sullivan to then-White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. The counsel's office interviewed advance team members, including Dach, who denied any wrongdoing. They concluded there no evidence implicating Dach or other White House representatives.

Three weeks later, the Sullivan presented hotel records to Ruemmler showing that Dach had registered an additional guest to his room shortly after midnight on April 4. Leonnig and Nakamura note that in Colombia, where prostitution is legal in certain pockets, the Hilton requires prostitutes to provide identification with proof of age, and retains a photocopy of it. The hotel's records show the guest registered to Dach's room had her ID photocopied.

Ruemmler's position did not change. An administration official told Leonnig and Nakamura that Ruemmler "believed it would be a 'real scandal' if she had sent 'a team of people to Colombia to investigate a volunteer over something that’s not a criminal act … That would be insane.'"

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general's office launched an investigation in late May, upon request from the Senate Homeland Security committee, which was concerned the Secret Service (which is under DHS) was not being thorough enough. They found that an agent had seen Dach with a woman the agent thought was a prostitute, and another agent noted the records suggesting Dach registered a woman into his room.

Investigators also found that the name of the woman registered to Dach's room matched that of a prostitute working in the city, who had posted internet ads pegged to the Summit of the Americas. (Dach vehemently denied the charges.)

The acting inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, presented the information to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and less than 24 hours later, David Nieland, the head DHS IG investigator on the case, says he was asked to remove references to an official report to evidence implicating a member of the White House's team. Two staffers for then-Senate Homeland Security chair Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also allegedly pressured Edwards' office to leave out information about the White House.

Nieland and two other staffers who fought the changes to the report were put on administrative leave, in what they believed to be retaliation; in at least one case, the Office of Special Counsel, an agency which helps protect federal whistleblowers, concluded that there was strong evidence that this was the motive. But Nieland's story isn't exactly bulletproof. The official story is that he was placed on leave for photographing a female intern's feet; he didn't deny the allegation and instead insisted that he did it as a joke. He was later forced to resign following allegations that he himself had hired a prostitute in Florida.

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:

white house intruder

(Adam Baumgartner / Vox)

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?

WJLA explains the Gonzalez incident.

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.

What's this about Obama being in an elevator with a guy with a gun?

tom frieden

CDC director Tom Frieden; the CDC headquarters were the site of perhaps the most concerning Secret Service failure in recent weeks. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

This is another big Secret Service failure from fall 2014, uncovered by the Washington Examiner's Susan Crabtree and Leonnig. On September 16, just a few days before the Gonzalez incident, a security contractor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was allowed on an elevator with the President — while said contractor was carrying a gun. While initial reports suggested the contractor was a convicted felon, this turned out to be false.

"The private contractor first aroused the agents’ concerns when he acted oddly and did not comply with their orders to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator," Leonnig writes. When the elevator reached its destination, Obama and most of his security detail left, while others stayed behind to question the contractor. It was only then that they discovered that he had been carrying a gun.

This was a problem, because the Secret Service, through its "Arm's Reach Program," is supposed to screen any staff, contractors, guests, volunteers, etc. at presidential engagements against various databases, including a criminal registry, and bar entry to those whose records suggest their presence is a risk. Police are exempt from this screening but private contractors shouldn't be. This incident suggests the Secret Service doesn't always screen everyone they're supposed to — and the result was that a man with a gun was allowed within arm's reach of the president.

What was the White House sniper incident?

On November 11, 2011, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez opened fire from his car south of the White House, hitting the upstairs residence portion of the building at least seven times.

The incident was reported at the time, but it wasn't until a September 27, 2014 report by Leonnig that it was known that Sasha Obama and her maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson (who lives at the White House), were in the residence that night, and Malia was due back any minute.

Leonnig also discovered that the Secret Service bungled its response to the incident in a number of alarming ways. After the shooting, a Secret Service supervisor instructed officers on duty, "No shots have been fired … Stand down," thinking that the gunshots were just construction noise.

The failures didn't stop there. Even after it was clear that there had been a shooting, Secret Service officials concluded that "gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn," rather than that someone had fired at the White House. "It took the Secret Service four days to realize that shots had hit the White House residence," Leonnig writes, "a discovery that came about only because a housekeeper noticed broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor."

"Officers who were on the scene who thought gunfire had probably hit the house that night were largely ignored, and some were afraid to dispute their bosses’ conclusions," Leonnig reports. And the ensuing investigation was seriously lacking: "Nobody conducted more than a cursory inspection of the White House for evidence or damage. Key witnesses were not interviewed until after bullets were found."

What has the White House done to deal with these security lapses?

Julia Pierson, the Secret Service's director, resigned after the Omar Gonzalez and Atlanta elevator scandals broke. The Department of Homeland Security appointed a panel of four outside experts to look into the agency's problems, resulting in a report in mid-December (the executive summary can be read here).

The report recommended raising the White House compound's fence, hiring more officers to protect the White House, president, and foreign embassies, improved training for officers, and, crucially, a new director from outside the service. President Obama ignored that last recommendation when he appointed veteran agent Joseph Clancy to lead the agency in mid-February.

In the latest drunk-driving incident, the administration has insisted it still has confidence in Clancy's leadership. The service says the men involved have been reassigned and are under investigation.

Have these kinds of security lapses happened in past presidencies?

white house helicopter

A more legitimate use of a helicopter by the White House. (Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

Several times, actually. Only eight days before the Gonzalez incident, a man wearing a Pikachu hat scaled the fence and ran onto the North Lawn before being intercepted. Other cases were more serious. In 1974, an Army private flew a helicopter from Fort Meade in Maryland to the White House, landing it after receiving gunfire from officers on the ground. In 1994 a man opened fire at the White House in an attempt to kill Bill Clinton, who was inside and obviously unharmed. That same year, a man died after crashing his Cessna plane onto the White House grounds.

But the rate at which they occur has increased since 2009. President Obama, according to Leonnig's sources, has faced three times as many threats as previous presidents.

Update: This post has been updated to include Leonnig's discovery that the officer who stopped Gonzalez was off-duty, Gonzalez's guilty plea, the Department of Homeland Security's panel investigating the agency, and the sniper, Atlanta elevator, and drunken agent scandals as well. The Atlanta elevator section was updated to reflect later reports that the man in question was not a convicted felon.