The Evolution of White House Security

Washington, DC – Shelves filled with diagonally, vertically, and horizontally placed old books harmoniously complemented the antique atmosphere of the office with its yellow-painted walls and shielded window which leaked a few fine strokes of sunshine. A bust from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson standing at the top of the two highest racks guarded the intimacy and reclusiveness. Behind the writing desk, pictures of laughing children in a park positioned on the mantelshelf enriched the grace of portraits depicting confident Union-generals from the Civil War-era in their blue uniforms. In the center of the room two armchairs with floral patterns delicately melted with their dim colors into the environment.
“It was a different world”, says William B. Bushong, 61, vice president and chief historian at the White House Historical Association.
The White House experienced an evolution in its protection measurements that were largely responses to security breaches that seriously threatened the life of the president and his family. Having been transformed into a stronghold, a historical review of the gradual restriction of the White House´s public accessibility will clarify the reasons behind these harsh protective measurements of today. Beginning with the first erection of a fence under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century, going through the installation of guards around the White House during the Civil War, to the shutoff of the gardens under the Cleveland presidency in the 1890s, the retrospect will arrive at the 1990s when Pennsylvania Avenue was isolated from the traffic, and the availability of visitor tickets was shifted to embassies in 2001.
“The presidents were not as powerful as they are today,” explains Bushong. “Congress was the power.”
The most recent overcoming of security measurements was performed by the Texan Omar J. Gonzalez on September 19, 2014. According to the article “White House fence-jumper made it far deeper into building than previously known” by Carol D. Leonnig, published on September 29, 2014 in the Washington Post, Gonzalez managed to jump over the fence and even enter the White House through the North Lawn, reaching the East Room in which Obama usually holds his public presentations to journalists. This event fueled the heavy concerns congressmen had about the Secret Service´s capability to efficiently protect the president. As a result, a temporary double fence was erected.
“I was not really surprised about the security breaches,” answers Bushong. “You have to understand that there have been fence-jumpers, a plane crashed on the South Lawn one time, and there have been people driving cars into the gates. So there is always going to be an element of that type of thing occurring.”
In this regard, Valerie Plame, 51, a former CIA operations officer, states her point of view on the Secret Service´s failure: “It´s abundantly clear that the Secret Service needs to be completely overhauled. The slips in behavior are absolutely unacceptable. Their code of conduct has to be without question, almost perfect. They failed and they know that. So, I hope they will continue to put in place a very strong director and overhaul what they need to do.”
The article “White House fence has evolved, from a wrought-iron decoration to a line of defense” by David A. Fahrenthold, published in the Washington Post on October 23, 2014, excellently describes the origins of White House security and the evolving function and purpose of the fence around the building. It started under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson as a retaining wall to keep mainly animals out, not human beings.
“Remember that Washington in 1801 was still a largely undeveloped area and had been developed out of what were really farms,” says Bushong. “So there were still a lot of rural activities even around the president´s mansion at that time.”
Thomas Jefferson had a very different viewpoint of what the White House should be in terms of the structure. He believed in it being an open house and being part of “the people´s house”. Moreover, the Lawns of the White House were public spaces, accessible to all citizens.
“You could come into the White House without security checks, up to the second floor where the president´s offices were in the 19th century, sit in the waiting room and if you are willing to wait, you might get lucky and get an interview with the president or ask him a question or two,” explicates Bushong.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Metropolitan Police started to guard the Executive Mansion under Abraham Lincoln by stationing uniformed, armed sentries at the gates to the grounds and at the doors of the White House.
“That´s really the beginnings of a real, permanent, defensive security force in what we would consider security today in and around the White House,” exemplifies Bushong. “That makes sense because the confederate forces were fairly close-by and the war was literally fought across the river.”
The idea of the White House being a pleasure garden really begins to dissolve during the second term of president Grover Cleveland. At the request of First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, the White House grounds were totally closed from the public in November, 1893, to shield the daughters Ruth and Esther from over-eager tourists who at one time hugged and kissed them.
“It totally scared her to death,” narrates Bushong, “especially the idea that strangers were that close to her children. And on top of that, the president had been receiving death threats through the males.”
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City had a strong impact in 1995 and resulted in the introduction of barriers that blockaded streets in front of government buildings throughout the United States. Furthermore, it led to the shutoff of Pennsylvania Avenue close to the North Lawn at the White House from public traffic.
“The Beirut bombing in the early 1980s and the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s had repercussions in terms of increasing the types of security in and around the White House,” states Bushong.
As explained in the White House Visitor Center Fact Sheet on the homepage of the White House Historical Association under the section “History”, the three hijacked planes that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the western side of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, probably had the heaviest impact on the White House´s public access.
Especially alarming was the fact that one aircraft, flight 93, was even supposed to hit the White House, but fortunately never reached its target and crashed in Shankville, Pennsylvania, thanks to revolting passengers. Afterwards, the availability of White House tour tickets was transferred from the Visitor Center to the Congressional offices and embassies. Today, it can take around three months to evaluate and process the application of a tourist for a tour.
“These destructions are huge reminders of the horror that could occur if you are not cautious,” explains Bushong. “That elevates any discussion that you are having about security in relation to the White House or any government building for that matter.”
The Monthly Public Use Report in the National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics shows that the number of public visits to the White House dramatically went down from 25,205 tourists in September 2001 to 16,301 in February 2014.
Beyond the United States, the shootout yesterday in Ottawa, Canada, involving the radical Islamist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau as the lone criminal stirred new efforts to increase police presence at government buildings in the downtown district, as reported by M. Alex Johnson in his article “Ottawa Shootings: The Day ‘Canada Lost Its Innocence’” published on NBC News on October 23, 2014.
“One person can make a lot of damage,” explains Martha Joynt Kumar, a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Towson University, “especially in our cases when Lincoln and Garfield were murdered.”
While gathering his history books on the maroon wooden table, Bushong summarizes the continuous struggle the White House will always have to face: “There has a balance to be struck between the security and the openness what we consider “our house”, owned by the American people. There is the realization that the president has to be protected. You have to understand that there are threats to be dealt with.”