Making Us Suffer For Their Incompetence: The Secret Service and the Barn Door Fallacy

White House Security

A mentally ill veteran got inside the White House Friday. He could have had a bomb, or a gun, and the President and his family might have been targets. How did this happen? Mass incompetence and a break-down in security. Multiple “rings” of protection failed. Was it because the system was inadequate? No, it was because the Secret Service screwed up.

1. A plainclothes surveillance team stands guard outside the White House fence, and its job is to spot fence-jumpers and sound a warning before they go over. The team wasn’t paying attention.

2. Omar Jose Gonzalez climbed over the fence to the lawn, where a Secret Service officer was supposed to intercept him. Gonzalez got past him.

3.  At that point, an attack dog was supposed to be released to bring the intruder down. It wasn’t.

4. A SWAT team is next in the series of obstacles, but it was late to the party, trailing the intruder, and being apparently unwilling to shoot him as procedures dictate.

5. Gonzalez reached the White House door. A guard is supposed to be directly in front of the door. Not this time. (And still no fire from the SWAT team…I can’t imagine why a white SWAT team member would hesitate to shoot an apparently unarmed black man, can you?)

6. The door was supposed to be locked. Nope.

Of course, no system is better than the human beings working within it. Like so many agencies in the Obama Administration—the NSA, HHS, Justice, the IRS, the Veteran’s Administration, the State Department, Homeland Security, the GSA—the Secret Service had shown unambiguous signs of poor discipline, lax management and poor oversight, so its performance on this occasion should not surprise anyone, though it is cause for alarm. The Secret Service’s response to a fiasco of its own making is to place blame elsewhere, in this case, in the systems it didn’t execute properly, with new burdens falling on those who had nothing whatsoever to do their collapse.

The agency is floating a  proposal is to keep people off the sidewalks around the White House, to add barriers to the perimeter, and to screen visitors as far as a block away from the entrance gates. This is immediately recognizable as the Barn Door Fallacy, in which adopting excessive and  draconian measures that might have prevented an unusual disaster or near disaster is used by those responsible to distract from the real reasons for the event—bad luck, stupidity, incompetence—and make sure that what has already happened can’t happen again, with concern for the cost to others and other considerations being discarded entirely. Thus the fact that Boston’s Logan airport didn’t follow its existing security procedures and allowed planes to be hijacked by terrorists resulted in billions of dollars of national airport security and endless inconvenience for law-abiding passengers—to stop what had already occurred. Thus a deranged young man using an elementary school for a shooting spree was used to justify arguments to ban firearms from purchase by non-deranged, honest and trustworthy citizens. Now the fact that the Secret Service can’t perform the tasks they are supposedly trained to do—and an embarrassing episode arising from the Service’s procrastination in dealing with an existing inadequacy–is being used to continue the transformation of the nation’s capital into an eyesore of barricades being prowled by secret police, so a disturbed veteran who belonged in a mental hospital won’t elude agents, dogs and doors to burst into the home of the President.

They are not happy about this in D.C., and I agree. “The Secret Service — which hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in the past few years — wants us to pay for its mistake, to once again intrude on more public space and make suspects out of millions of visitors, residents and office workers who come near the White House every day. To further encroach on the country’s most important values: our openness and our freedom,” writes Washington Post Metro columnist Petula Dvorak. Post architecture critic Phillip Kennecott takes no prisoners either:

“Under no circumstances should the Secret Service be allowed to encroach further on the public space of Washington. Ill-considered, unnecessary and undemocratic security measures have already stolen from the American people the West Terrace of the Capitol, the front doors of the Supreme Court and the free flow of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue at Lafayette Square. Now there are reports that the Secret Service is considering new security measures around the White House, including bag searches in nearby blocks. These potential new intrusions on civil liberties and the free circulation of a democratic people are apparently in response to a security breach at the White House on Friday. And yet all reports indicate that it was a failure of established Secret Service policies that allowed Omar J. Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran, to jump the fence, traverse the lawn and briefly enter the White House.

The Secret Service should examine its own failures before it further humiliates local citizens and tourists who circulate near the White House. It should not be rewarded with yet more control over public space. Nor should any further visual clutter around the White House perimeter be allowed, including any additions to the security fence or any loss of access to the fence itself. This is an institutional, organizational problem; it does not require an architectural solution.”

But of course. Unfortunately, the Secret Service is immersed in the culture forged by the man it is pledged to protect, for whom the response to internal failures for six years has been to duck accountability, and rather than learn the appropriate lessons and resolve to do better, to try to assign the blame, cost and consequences  to others.

If only they could blame the success of the fence-jumper on George W. Bush…


Sources: Washington Post 1: 2; 3; 4; 5;6



5 thoughts on “Making Us Suffer For Their Incompetence: The Secret Service and the Barn Door Fallacy

  1. Your last paragraph summed up my impressions, Jack. Any organization- no matter how professional by tradition- inevitably falls into disarray when the top leadership and the environment in which they operate falters. This is no excuse, of course, for the failings of the Secret Service during the Obama administration. But it is a contributor. Even worse, the other protective organizations that we once held in such high esteem (the FBI, CIA, NSA… even to the National Park Police) have also publicly displayed an increasing tendency toward unprofessionalism and increased authoritarianism in their workings. One can only hope that the next president will not only be of higher stature than the present occupant, but see the immense problem he’s been handed in this regard and take firm corrective measures. In any case, such measures must entail virtually every arm of the Executive Branch. Corruption and mismanagement- along with an unhealthy attitude and motivation- have taken a heavy toll.

    • I don’t know if even that would work. I fear many of these institutions have been so corrupted that they cannot be reformed. Look at the NSA, they seem to have no one with the patriotism to stand up for or even understand the rights of American citizens. You can’t fix this with a sensitivity training session. So what do you do about it? You would have to fire everyone…EVERYONE in the NSA. But the NSA does legitimate, vital work for this nation. You can’t just get rid of everyone, you can’t get rid of all of that experience. So what do you do? It looks like we have a choice between completely hamstringing our intelligence ability or giving up our freedoms. So what do we do? Now look at the law enforcement community, our public education system, the Justice Department? We have the same bad choices here.

      There are some things that can’t be undone.

  2. If ineffective and draconian remedial measures that violate basic rights can SAVE EVEN ONE incompetent bureaucrat embarrassment …well,I say we should knuckle under, and enjoy the “Look at us fix this problem!!!” sideshow.

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