Secret Service took four days to realize White House had been shot.

It Took Secret Service Four Days to Realize Someone Fired Seven Shots at the White House

It Took Secret Service Four Days to Realize Someone Fired Seven Shots at the White House

The Slatest
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Sept. 28 2014 11:31 AM

It Took Secret Service Four Days to Realize Someone Fired Seven Shots at the White House

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It apparently took the Secret Service four days to realize this had happened at the White House residence.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

When a man carrying a knife was able to jump the fence and sprint into the front door of the White House, many said it was symptomatic of larger issues with the Secret Service. A fascinating Washington Post piece today makes it clear just how true that is, recounting how it took four days for the Secret Service to even realize that someone had fired shots at the White House and that seven bullets had struck the upstairs residence in 2011. President Obama and his wife were out of town at the time but their younger daughter Sasha was at home with Michelle Obama’s mother. And Malia was expected back home any minute.

When Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, a man who appeared increasingly paranoid about the U.S. government and seemingly obsessed with how President Obama “had to be stopped,” fired his semiautomatic rifle out of his car, Secret Service agents were quick to respond. But they were told to stand down, with superiors saying no shots had actually been fired. Even though agents seemed to know that was clearly not true—a pair of agents said they could smell gunpowder while another had heard debris fall from the Truman balcony—they stayed quiet, apparently out of fear of angering their superiors. In the end the conclusion was that two rival gangs had gotten into a gunfight near the White House lawn.

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It was only when a housekeeper found a broken window and a piece of concrete days later that agents began to realize what had happened. The president and first lady were understandably furious. Once the Secret Service actually started investigating, they quickly realized this was no small matter, finding $97,000 worth of damage. At the time, Ortega’s arrest did receive attention but all of the problems with the investigation—and the potential danger to the first family—had been kept under wraps. The way it is coming to light now suggests some powerful people want to speed up changes at the agency that has suffered numerous embarrassments in recent years.

Ortega-Hernandez was sentenced to 25 years in prison earlier this year for what his lawyers described as a "misguided effort to make the public aware of what he believed to be the coming Armageddon."  

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.