WASHINGTON — A series of black eyes for the U.S. Secret Service — including a new report that says supervisors mishandled a 2011 shooting incident at the White House — should be viewed with the agency’s broader mission in mind, a top White House official said on Sunday.
Tony Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the new revelation, along with an episode earlier this month that saw an armed intruder gain access inside the executive mansion, were blips for an otherwise stalwart security force.
“Let’s put this in perspective,” Blinken said. “The men and women of the Secret Service put their lives on the line for the President of the United States, his family, and folks working in the White House every single day, 24 hours a day. Their task is incredible, and the burden that they bear is incredible.”
“I know the Secret Service is on top of this and they will take every necessary step to correct any problems,” he said.
Late Saturday, The Washington Post reported that Secret Service officials initially dismissed a series of gunshots that struck the White House in 2011 as backfire from a vehicle near the National Mall, ordering officers on the scene to “stand down.” When it became clear shots were fired, officials said they came from opposing gang members and were not intended for the White House.
The Secret Service said it was an uncertain situation. Officers could not ascertain the direction from which shots originated due to probable echoing of the sounds between the buildings around the White House. A Secret Service spokesman said the shots were fired over a quarter mile away from the White House which added to the uncertainty.
Immediately following the incident, the Secret Service said it notified police and initiated a protective sweep around the outer perimeter of the White House. Officers found no suspect, injured persons or property damage.
But damage from the gunshots, which the Post said totaled nearly $100,000, was later found on the Truman Balcony, outside the president’s private residence, by a housekeeper. Bullets shattered historic windows but were stopped by a layer of bulletproof glass underneath.
While the President and first lady were out of town at the time of the incident, their two daughters and Mrs. Obama’s mother were in Washington.
Justice Department filings later showed the shooter, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho Falls, Idaho, parked his car south of the White House and fired at least eight shots from an open window toward the White House. He used a Romanian semi-automatic Cugir rifle.
He sped away but soon crashed his car, escaping on foot and fleeing aboard a freight train. He was arrested in Pennsylvania five days later. According to the FBI, Ortega-Hernandez alleged the president was the “anti-Christ” and claimed he was “on a mission from God to take out Obama.”
The Obamas were outraged at the handling of the 2011 incident, the newspaper reported, and demanded to know why they weren’t kept apprised of security details that affected their daughters.
The paper said Michelle Obama spoke to the agency’s director at the time, Mark Sullivan, in a voice loud enough to be heard through a closed door.
After the 2011 shooting the Secret Service said implemented both personnel and structural enhancements following the review, and other physical and technical enhancements, including additional surveillance cameras.
The Post’s report came at a trying time for the agency. In mid-September a man armed with a small knife made it over the White House fence and into the North Portico door, the first time in memory an intruder made it inside the executive mansion. He was stopped before making it farther into the President’s residence.
After that incident, the agency said it was reviewing its officers’ response and bolstering security on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, jumped over the iron fence.
The President, speaking after the September breach, said the agency does “a great job” in keeping his family safe.AlertMe