The crash of a drone on the White House grounds points to the vulnerability of the Executive Mansion and is another headache for the beleaguered Secret Service.
But here is a surprise: In contrast to its repeated security lapses, the Secret Service actually has already recognized drones as a possible threat. The agency has consulted with the Energy Department’s national laboratories, which protect nuclear sites from attack, on what to do about them before a drone deploys a bomb or radiological, biological, or chemical agents at the White House.
The Secret Service, the national laboratories, and Defense Department are working on counter-measures that would zap the electronic components of drones with electromagnetic waves or disrupt their radio commands.
The roof of the New Executive Office Building around the corner from the White House is outfitted with a missile battery that could take down airplanes, but it is useless against tiny drones that could be launched from a van parked next to the White House grounds. Because of their small size, even detecting drones is a problem.
The president’s vulnerability is illustrated by the fact that a drone flew within feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere at a campaign rally in Dresden on September 15. The small quadrocopter with its four propellers hovered briefly in front of them before crashing into the stage practically at Merkel’s feet. The same type of drone crashed on the White House grounds.
The fact that the Secret Service has been alert to the drone issue is in stark contrast with the rest of its operations. In an interview with me, then Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan boasted that the once proud Secret Service “makes do with less,” pinpointing a management culture that has resulted in the Secret Service crumbling.
As an example, the Secret Service has refused to deploy the most advanced technology to detect intrusions and weapons of mass destruction at the White House. It didn’t deploy surveillance cameras on the road leading to Vice President Joe Biden’s home in Wilmington so that the perpetrator of a recent shooting there could have been tracked and apprehended.
In its arrogance, the Secret Service never even locked the front door of the White House, allowing intruder Omar J. Gonzalez to run through most of the main floor of the White House into the East Room, passing by the staircase to the residence portion.
The drone incident at 3:08 a.m. Monday lends urgency to a report by an all-star, four-person panel appointed by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to recommend a new director and improvements to White House security. The panel said that only a strong new director from outside the agency, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, would be able to do the “honest top-to bottom reassessment this will require” to change the agency’s culture.
The panel did not buy the Secret Service’s excuses about not having enough money and its lackadaisical “we make do with less” attitude. In another example of how outrageously lax the Secret Service has been, the panel pointed out that simple changes to the White House fence would make it far more difficult to scale: increasing its height by four or five feet, curving the top of the fence outward toward the sidewalk, and eliminating horizontal bars that make the fence easy to climb.
While the panel did not formally recommend a candidate as the new director, behind the scenes members adopted as one possibility a recommendation I made when the panel asked to meet with me: appointment of a former high-ranking FBI official to lead the Secret Service. Since 9/11, the FBI has done a remarkable job of keeping the country safe from a foreign terrorist attack. The FBI’s culture would never tolerate the cover-up mentality that pervades the Secret Service.
Unfortunately, it took the assassination of President Kennedy to galvanize the Secret Service to make major upgrades. It should not take another tragedy to turn the Secret Service back into the elite agency that its brave agents and this country deserve.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.