- thomas sparrow
- BBC World, Washington (@bbc_sparrow)
Like almost all tourists, the Colombian Diego Duarte traveled to Washington with the aim of taking a photo in front of the White House.
President Barack Obama’s residence is not only one of the most famous buildings in the world, but compared to other mansions of its style, it gives the impression of being relatively casual in its exterior security measures.
With no large barricades or barbed wire, no soldiers in intimidating uniforms, it’s easy for visitors to 1600 Pennsylvania Street to walk up to the perimeter fence, have their picture taken in front of the house, and even, if they’re lucky, see the dogs Bo and Sunny running around the lawn.
Thus, (almost) accessible, is how the president of the United States wants to show to tourists from different corners of the world, but all that could change since a man with a knife jumped the fence on Friday night, ran through the garden and I get to the gate of the house.
The man was identified as Ómar González, an Iraq war veteran who investigators say had ammunition, two axes and a machete in a vehicle parked nearby.
The incident set off Secret Service alerts and forced it to consider measures to increase security in the area.
This Monday, for example, it was evident that there were more agents checking the sector, some with dogs, and a non-permanent fence kept visitors away a little more than normal.
“We would like it to be a closer photo, like the one that all tourists always take, but for now it’s up to us from this fence that is here in front,” says Duarte, a little disappointed.
Suitcases, cars, intruding babies
Precisely because of this apparent informality of the White House, it is common for the mansion to go on alert for all kinds of situations, be it an abandoned suitcase, an object that someone threw from outside, a lost driver or even -as happened in August- a baby who ran away from his parents and slipped through the gate.
In that latter case, the Secret Service took it gracefully, saying “we were going to wait until he learned to talk to question him, but instead we gave him a break and returned him to his parents.”
The incident last Friday, however, is different and the officials are not amused, since it is not common for a man to jump over the fence, cross the entire lawn and reach the door of the White House, which was also unlocked. . Less than ten minutes earlier, President Obama and his two daughters had departed aboard their helicopter.
For such a custodial president, for a country that places so much emphasis on its security measures, for someone to be able to walk around the emblem of American power is nothing short of an embarrassment for the Secret Service.
Since then, the director of that entity, Julia Pierson, has surely undergone an internal review and the authorities are studying measures so that this type of incident does not happen again.
Among the proposals is preventing people from walking on the sidewalks that adjoin the fence, seizing more bags at random and expanding the security perimeter, which would keep tourists away who want their iconic photograph.
“The president heard, as might be expected, that his family lives in the White House and is therefore obviously concerned about the incident he reported on Friday night,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
“A lot of security, a lot of caution”
Incidents like this reveal the great security dilemma facing the presidential mansion: how to fortify it open yet impassable, how to give the impression that it is accessible but at the same time ensure that the boundaries are maintained.
There have been proposals to strengthen the fence or put up barbed wire in the past, but the administration doesn’t want to send the wrong message to visitors who clearly notice how easy it is to walk up to the presidential mansion to see the iconic grounds and get their photo taken. .
“It’s an illusion to come to Washington, meet, take photos here in the White House,” says Esperanza, who comes from Spain. “I thought that I couldn’t (take photos) so close, that it would have to be very far, so it could be so close, it’s great, because many tourists come to this.”
“I figured it would be super crowded with cops all around, but no, it’s okay.”
Esteban Dávila, for his part, says that he notices the presence of the agents, but “I suppose there are more that one does not see.”
“It’s nice to be able to get so close, it seems very sober to me. It’s simply… a white house,” concludes this tourist. “It lives up to her name very well.”