Fence-jumpers beware: The protective barrier around the White House is likely about to get higher and more difficult to scale.
That was the recommendation from an independent panel tasked with scrutinizing the Secret Service after a series of embarrassing lapses earlier this fall. (Who can forget the knife-wielding Iraq War veteran who made it into the executive mansion after climbing the seven-and-a-half foot fence?) The fence surrounding the 18-acre perimeter "must be replaced as soon as possible," the panel warned in the executive summary of its report, which was made public on Thursday afternoon.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson appointed the group of four outside experts—all former government officials—in October following the resignation of the agency's director, Julia Pierson. A new fence was just one of 19 separate recommendations in the report, which found the once-elite force to be overly "insular," understaffed, undertrained, and beset by a lack of leadership and focus. "The problems exposed by recent events go deeper than a new fence can fix," the investigators wrote in the summary. (The full report is classified). Because personnel work "unsustainable hours," the report found, agents and officers often skip out on necessary training. It got to the point where in 2013, the average member of the 1,300-member Uniformed Division—responsible for protecting the president—received just 25 minutes of training for the whole year.
As with most reports like this, the panelists said that the Secret Service needs more money, which they acknowledged "is always a challenge in Washington D.C." Many of the recommendations they offered have been made before only to be ignored. "This time must be different," Johnson said in a statement upon accepting the suggestions, which he praised as "astute, thorough, and fair."
Yet for the public, the most tangible change that might come is likely to be the most cosmetic. And it's also one that's been prompted by what the report's authors acknowledge are often "frivolous" threats against the first family. DHS did not detail its plans for the White House fence, but in the weeks after the high-profile breaches in September, the government installed a temporary second layer around the perimeter on Pennsylvania Avenue, leaving little doubt that a more permanent change was coming.
The challenge now is the same it has always been in the two-century history of the president's home: How do you balance the need to protect one of the world's most important buildings without turning it into a foreboding symbol of the 21st century security state? The panelists suggested the goals might not be so hard to reconcile: another four or five feet higher, perhaps, along with curving the top of the fence outward so it's tougher to scale. "Any of these adjustments, the panel is certain, can be made without diminishing the aesthetic beauty or historic character of the White House grounds," the experts wrote.
Only time (and tourists) will tell.
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