TO ENTER THE West Wing, a visitor presses a white button on an intercom mounted at the northwest gate and announces himself. If the visitor appears legitimate, a uniformed Secret Service officer electronically unlocks the gate, allowing the visitor to enter. He then passes his driver’s license or other government photo identification through a slot in a bulletproof booth to one of four uniformed Secret Service officers.
Before being allowed into the White House, a visitor with an appointment must provide his Social Security number and birth date in advance. The Uniformed Division checks to see if the individual is listed by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) maintained by the FBI or by the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (NLETS) as having been arrested or as having violated laws.
Besides the threat list compiled by the Secret Service, the Uniformed Division maintains a Do Not Admit list of about a hundred people who are barred from the White House because they have caused embarrassment. For example, the White House press office may place a journalist on the list because he or she made it a practice of disobeying rules about where reporters may wander in the White House.
If a visitor is on the appointment list and has been cleared, he is given a pass and allowed into the security booth. The visitor swipes the pass and goes through a metal detector before being allowed to walk outside again toward the West Wing. For years, when most people thought of the White House, they thought of the main building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which serves as the president’s home and once served as his office. Abraham Lincoln had his office in what is now known as the Lincoln bedroom on the second floor of the White House. Only with the recent TV series has the public come to understand that the West Wing now houses the presidential offices.
The West Wing was added onto the White House in 1902. In 1909, the president’s Oval Office was constructed in the center of the south side of the West Wing. In 1934, it was moved to its current location on the southeast corner, overlooking the Rose Garden. Finally, in 1942, the East Wing was built to house the offices of the first lady as well as the White House military office.
A visitor to the West Wing passes more than a dozen TV cameras on tripods sprouting along the driveway that leads to the entrance to the West Wing lobby. This strip, where correspondents broadcast from the White House, was once known as Pebble Beach. Now, because flagstone has replaced the pebbles, wags in the press corps call it Stonehenge. A separate entrance to the left of the lobby entrance goes directly to the James S. Brady press briefing room. White House correspondents must pass a Secret Service background check before being issued press credentials that let them go through the security booth when the pass is swiped.
Even with appointments, the Secret Service will not admit visitors if they have violations involving assaults or fraud. If an individual had a conviction for marijuana use ten years earlier, for example, officers will inform the White House employee who is expecting the guest. Then the decision to admit the person falls to the aide, who may invent an excuse to cancel the appointment.
Occasionally, a wanted fugitive makes the mistake of setting up an appointment at the White House, which is code-named Crown. During the administration of George H. W. Bush, a man who was wanted for grand larceny planned to enter the White House with a friend of Bush’s. He submitted his Social Security number in advance of the appointment. The Secret Service arrested him on arrival.
“If there is a warrant, the [computer] screen says, ‘There is a warrant for this man’s arrest. Call an agent,’” a Secret Service agent says.
Richard C. Weaver, a self-proclaimed Christian minister, made it through all the security layers and walked right up to President George W. Bush during his inauguration in 2001. He proceeded to shake his hand and hand him an inaugural coin and a message from God. Known to the Secret Service as the Handshake Man, Weaver had pulled the same stunt when Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Apparently, he was on the inaugural committee’s access list. After the Bush inaugural, he tried a few other times to gain access to presidents and senators.
“His picture is plastered in every security booth we have,” a Secret Service agent says.
As with the question of how much protection a president should have, the amount of security around the White House has always been an issue of contention. For decades, the District of Columbia government resisted closing off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. When a threat arose or a demonstration took place, the Secret Service would close off the street or encircle the White House with buses. During the Reagan administration, Jersey barriers were installed around the perimeter of the White House complex. In 1990, they were replaced with bollards. The gates were reinforced with steel beams that rise from the ground after the gates are closed. After 9/11, the Bush administration turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a pedestrian plaza.
“One reason we reinforced the gates is people have tried to drive their cars through the gates to see the president,” a longtime agent says. “An iron beam comes out of the ground behind those gates when the gates close. A two-ton truck could slam them at forty miles per hour, and they will withstand it.”
The Secret Service’s Technical Security Division (TSD) installs devices at White House entrances to detect radiation and explosives. Populated with real-life versions of Q, James Bond’s fictional gadget master, TSD sweeps the White House and hotel rooms for electronic bugs. While electronic bugs have never been found in the White House, they are occasionally found in hotel rooms because they were planted to pick up conversations of previous guests. When Ronald Reagan was to stay at a hotel in Los Angeles, for example, the Technical Security Division found a bug in the suite he was to occupy. It turned out the previous occupant was Elton John.
TSD samples the air and water in the White House for contaminants, radioactivity, and deadly bacteria. It keeps air in the White House at high pressure to expel possible contaminants. It provides agents with special hoods called expedient hoods to be placed over the president’s head in the event of a chemical attack. Each year, TSD screens nearly a million pieces of mail sent to the White House for pathogens and other biological threats. In conjunction with Los Alamos National Laboratory or Sandia National Laboratories, it runs top secret risk assessments to find any holes in physical or cyber security measures.
In case an assassin manages to penetrate all the security to see the president, TSD installs panic buttons and alarms in the Oval Office and the residence part of the White House. They can be used if there is a medical emergency or physical threat. Many of the alarm triggers are small presidential seals that sit on tables or desks and are activated if knocked over.
The panic alarms bring Secret Service agents running, guns drawn. Besides agents and uniformed officers stationed around the Oval Office, the agents deployed to W-16 under the Oval Office can leap up the stairway in a few seconds.
As a last resort, the White House has emergency escape routes, including a tunnel that is ten feet wide and seven feet high. It extends from a subbasement of the White House under the East Wing to the basement of the Treasury Department adjacent to the White House grounds.
One of the more dramatic attacks took place on October 29, 1994, at two fifty-five P.M., when Francisco Martin Duran stood on the south sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue and began firing at the White House with a Chinese SKS semiautomatic rifle. As he ran toward Fifteenth Street, he paused to reload, and a tourist tackled him. Uniformed officers drew their weapons but held fire as more tourists grappled with Duran.
“I wish you had shot me,” Duran said as the officers arrested him.
Since a white-haired man was coming out of the White House when Duran began firing, Secret Service agents concluded that Duran likely thought he was firing at President Clinton. He was convicted of attempting to assassinate the president and sentenced to forty years in prison. He was also ordered to pay the government thirty-two hundred dollars to repair damage to the White House, including replacing pressroom windows riddled with bullets.
In December 1994, four more such attacks—perhaps inspired by previous ones—occurred within a few days of one another. On December 20, Marcelino Corniel dashed across Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House brandishing a knife. Uniformed Division officers and Park Police ordered him to drop it. When he refused and lunged toward a Park Police officer, another Park Police officer shot and killed him.
What was not included in news reports was that the man had a “seven-inch knife taped to his arm, so when the officer told him to drop the knife, he couldn’t,” says former Secret Service agent Pete Dowling. “This was what they call ‘suicide by cop.’ The guy wanted to be killed. And unfortunately the police officer felt that his life was being threatened, and he shot and killed the man.”
A day after that incident, Uniformed Division officers opened the southwest gate to admit an authorized vehicle. Just then, a man burst past them and ran toward the mansion. The officers tackled and arrested him. The man was a disturbed individual who had an obsession with the White House.
Two days later, a man fired at the mansion with a nine-millimeter pistol from the perimeter of the south lawn. While two shots fell short of the White House, one landed on the State Floor balcony, and another penetrated a window of the State Floor dining room. After a Uniformed Division officer scanning the south Executive Avenue sidewalk noticed a fidgety man, a Park Police officer ran after him, searched him, and confiscated the pistol.
A previous incident on September 11, 1994, demonstrated the White House’s vulnerability. That evening, after drinking and smoking crack cocaine, Frank E. Corder found the keys to a Cessna P150 airplane that had been rented and returned to the Aldino Airport in Churchville, Maryland. Although the thirty-eight-year-old truck driver was not a licensed pilot, he had taken some lessons and had flown that particular aircraft several times.
Corder stole the plane and flew to the White House. He then dove directly toward it at a steep angle. While aircraft are not supposed to fly over the White House, airplanes periodically do so by mistake. As a result, the military must exercise judgment when deciding whether to shoot down aircraft that stray into White House airspace. Given that after 9/11, cockpits of commercial airliners were hardened, air marshals were added to most flights, and many pilots are now armed, it is unlikely that such a plane would again be commandeered. But after 9/11, any general aviation aircraft that violated restrictions on flights near the White House and did not respond to military commands would be shot down by missiles or fighter aircraft. Each year, about four hundred general aviation aircraft are intercepted across the country and forced to land on threat of being shot down.
The Joint Operations Center at Secret Service headquarters now interfaces twenty-four hours a day with the Federal Aviation Administration and the control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Headquarters also views on radar any planes flying in the area.
Corder’s plane crashed onto the White House lawn just south of the Executive Mansion at one forty-nine A.M. and skidded across the ground. What Corder did not plan for was the Sony JumboTron that had been set up on the south lawn in front of the White House for an event. It was a giant television screen measuring thirty-three feet by one hundred ten feet.
“There’s no way he could have flown the plane into the White House,” says Pete Dowling, who was on the president’s protective detail at the time. “He couldn’t have navigated the plane without hitting the JumboTron. So he had to land a little bit early, and what he did was, he just came to rest against one of the magnolias that was right in front of the south part of the White House.”
Corder died of multiple, massive blunt-force injuries from the crash. At the time, the White House was undergoing renovations, and President Clinton and his family were staying at Blair House.
While Corder had expressed dissatisfaction with Clinton’s policies, and his third marriage had just gone on the rocks, the Secret Service concluded that—like most assassins—his purpose had been to gain notoriety. He had told friends he wanted to “kill himself in a big way” by flying into the White House or the Capitol.
Corder’s brother John said the pilot had expressed interest in Mathias Rust, a German teenager who flew a Cessna plane through five hundred fifty miles of heavily guarded Soviet airspace and landed in Red Square in 1987. John Corder quoted his brother as saying of the German: “The guy made a name for himself.”
The greatest embarrassment to the Uniformed Division took place on February 17, 1974, when U.S. Army Private First Class Robert K. Preston stole an army helicopter from Fort Meade, Maryland, and landed on the south lawn at nine-thirty P.M.
Instead of firing at the helicopter, uniformed officers called a Secret Service official at home, asking him what they should do. He told them to shoot at the helicopter. By then, the helicopter had flown away. It returned fifty minutes later. This time, Uniformed Division officers and Secret Service agents fired at it with shotguns and submachine guns.
“They riddled it with bullets,” a Secret Service agent says. “When he landed [the second time], he opened the door and rolled under the helicopter. It probably saved his life. They put seventy rounds through that. There were twenty rounds in the seat. He would have been shot to death [if he had not rolled under the chopper]. It was not going to take off this time.”
Preston, twenty, had flunked out of flight school and perhaps wanted to show them all that he did have some flying skills. He was treated for a superficial gunshot wound. He was sentenced to a year at hard labor and fined twenty-four hundred dollars.
Neither President Nixon nor his wife, Pat, was at the White House at the time.