How badly did the Secret Service foul things up when intruder Omar Gonzalez managed to get inside the White House through an unlocked front door? Where do we begin?
Do we start with the surveillance outside, which is supposed to stop anyone from jumping the fence, but frequently doesn’t? Or do we marvel at how he sprinted 70 yards past several levels of supposed protection, human and canine, and actually got inside? And why was the door unlocked to begin with? Or do we rewind to July, when Gonzalez initially came to the Secret Service’s attention and was interviewed by agents when he was arrested in Virginia with weapons in his car and a map that included the White House. That was just the first time. There were other incidents that placed him on the agency’s radar screen. And yet, for whatever reason, he managed to fly under the radar. The reason is plainly and simply that the Secret Service screwed up, big-time.
Let me insert right here that as someone who covered the White House for years as well as through many campaigns, I have a huge respect for the men and women who protect the families of the president and vice president. They are tough, dedicated and adept at maneuvering through the treacherous territory between doing whatever it takes and leaving as few bruised feelings as possible. As a TV reporter, I traded elbows with them daily, trying to get as close to the story as we could.
But elite though it is, the Secret Service is a law-enforcement agency, which means that its leaders are focused first and foremost on their mission. Everything else is secondary. So it was true to form when, after this latest embarrassment, the first thing they did was to float the idea that maybe those who come to see the White House, “The People’s House,” should have to view it from farther away. Maybe those who now walk outside its wrought-iron gates should be placed behind barriers, or be screened by security before they’re allowed onto the pedestrian area. Never mind that it would impinge on the openness that is supposed to be such an American expectation, and never mind that somebody shouldn’t have forgotten the front door, police agencies will take whatever they can to make doing their jobs easier.
It explains why local departments around the country are gobbling up all the armored war paraphernalia from the Pentagon for them to do their job. Or to overdo their job. It’s harder to operate on a street level, easier to use overwhelming brute force, and civil liberties be hanged.
While not law-enforcement entities exactly, the same mentality dominates the mindset of those who operate our intelligence agencies. So if, in the name of protecting the nation — the “homeland,” as they like to call it — from terrorist attack they master the technical ability to spy on each and every one of us, then sure, do it, sweep aside any consideration for the privacy that we naively had come to expect. Furthermore, anyone who exposes them should be arrested or, in the case of Ed Snowden, be forced to flee the country and hide out in Russia.
We like to set the United States apart from countries like Russia, whose systems run roughshod over the concept of freedom. But a big threat to our ideals are those who are supposed to protect us, but who have become tunnel-vision zealots and need to be reined in.
So to the Secret Service and the police forces and the intelligence agencies: Never lose sight of the fact that being a democracy is tough. It makes your work protecting it harder. But deal with it. Each time you successfully whittle away at our rights and freedoms, there’s a little bit less of our great country to protect.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.