Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Utah Man Advocates Violence On Federal Property

Jason "Overwhelming Force" Chaffetz Action Figure

I was going to write up my reaction to yesterday's Oversight Committee hearing on the White House security breach, but then Salon wrote it for me:
The competition for who could make the grander spectacle of themselves was stiff. Rep. John Mica held up an ADT sign and suggested that the Secret Service buy some “inexpensive vegetation” to bolster White House security. Rep. Trey Gowdy cranked his volume knob all the way to eleven and then broke it off. But the winner has to be committee-chair-in-waiting Jason Chaffetz, who demanded to know why, when it comes to fence jumpers, the Secret Service doesn’t use “overwhelming force.”

Exactly so. If you didn't see it live, you can watch the hearing here, on C-Span.

Representative Mica's helpful suggestion to Secret Service Director Pierson was that she reinforce White House security with Spanish Bayonet, a plant that grows in the desert and on sand dunes and which is used as a landscape accent in his home state of Florida. Okay, yeah, thanks.

Representative Gowdy is still the loudest man in Congress. Still annoying, but that's nothing new.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, however, might have broken new ground with his histrionics about wanting "overwhelming force" exerted against any and all White House intruders (no matter how small?). I think he even teared up a little when he said, more than once, that if any Secret Service agent used lethal force "I will have his back." I don't know what he means by that, but he seemed to think it was a muy macho thing to say.

The only grown-up at the hearing was former Secret Service Director Basham, whose opening statement cautioned that, had this latest fence-jumper been shot, the Committee might very well have been grilling Pierson over why her troops killed a mentally disabled veteran who was displaying no obvious weapon. Of course, had that happened, the agent who fired would be reassured to know that Jason Chaffetz will have his back - what does that mean? - while he goes through the criminal, civil, administrative, and personal consequences of using deadly force.

After all the bloodthirsty shouting at that hearing, it seems awfully mild and mundane to go back to the business of the White House's weak perimeter fence. But, there was this interesting article in the WaPo a few days ago in which a National Park Service spokeswoman said that the Secret Service has never given NPS any security standards or criteria for the fence, or even shown any interest in what NPS does with it:

The fence itself is 7 feet 6 inches tall. It is made of evenly spaced iron bars, mounted in a Virginia sandstone base. At the top of the bars — the last physical obstacle between the public sidewalk and the knob on the White House door — are little spear points, called finials.

We haven’t done any other work since 1965,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which owns the fence (the White House is technically located in a national park).

And Anzelmo-Sarles said the Park Service couldn’t remember anyone — the Secret Service, the White House, anyone — asking for the fence to be changed. In fact, the Park Service is in the middle of a project that will repaint the old fence and remove the rust, without changing anything else.

“There’s no sort of tension or anything like that in recent memory” over the design of the fence, she said.

That article was published September 23. I hope there has been some tension between NPS and the Secret Service since then.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Utah Man Vaults Over House Oversight Committee, Rushes Into the WaPo

There's a proper fence for a Head of State, but not perfect

The House Oversight committee will hold a hearing tomorrow to examine the White House intrusion incident of last week:

On Tuesday, September 30 at 10:00 a.m., the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will convene a hearing to examine the latest concerns regarding the U.S. Secret Service’s security protocols in light of the September 19, 2014, incident in which an armed intruder entered the North Portico of the White House. The Committee has invited Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to testify at the hearing. Chairman Issa released the following statement:

“The recent intrusion of an individual into the White House is the latest in a string of high profile incidents for the Secret Service. These significant security breaches reveal our weaknesses as well as our response capabilities to our nation’s enemies. I look forward to hearing from Secret Service Director Pierson, in light of scandals ranging from the Salahis to Cartagena, about what steps the agency is taking under her leadership to improve security and put an end to dangerous embarrassments.”

But you don't need to wait until tomorrow to get some quite interesting inside information about the incident, because Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) leaked the juicy details to the Washington Post today:

The man who jumped the White House fence this month and sprinted through the front door made it much farther into the building than previously known, overpowering one [female] Secret Service officer and running through much of the main floor, according to three people familiar with the incident.

An alarm box near the front entrance of the White House designed to alert guards to an intruder had been muted at what officers believed was a request of the usher’s office, said a Secret Service official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The officer posted inside the front door appeared to be delayed in learning that the intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was about to burst through. Officers are trained that, upon learning of an intruder on the grounds, often through the alarm boxes posted around the property, they must immediately lock the front door.

After barreling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.

Well, well, well. All of that, plus the Secret Service's surprisingly lackadaisical response to a 2011 shooting incident, ought to make for a must-see hearing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't Fence Me In, Too Much

As Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.

Someone who definitely likes good fences is former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham. He told CNN that the White House needs a bigger and badder one if it wants to stop fence jumpers:
Former Secret Service director Ralph Basham said the fence around the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue is particularly vulnerable.

"That is the problem," said Basham, founder of Command Consulting Group, a security firm. "It took this individual less than 30 seconds" to scale the fence.

Basham said he is not necessarily recommending a higher fence, suggesting instead an added tilt at the top, or non-lethal shock wire to increase security.

"I don't think anyone in this country wants to see a White House that's got concrete walls, and Concertina wire across the top, and guard towers on the corners. That is unacceptable. And that's the challenge that the Secret Service has," he said.

Any changes to the fence would require buy-in from several different groups, such as the White House Historical Association and the National Capital Planning Commission, said Basham.

"All of these entities have to be satisfied when you're dealing with this simple sort of question: Should we not enhance this type of fence and make it more secure?" he said.

In case anyone takes that suggestion of an electrified fence seriously, please add to the list of parties who need to buy-in (1) the President, (2) the Congress, and (3) every personal injury lawyer in America. I assume that no one is taking it seriously, if only due to the impracticality.

Such fences usually need to be put up inside of an outer boundary fence, the electric wires need to be isolated and grounded, and the emanations they put out can interfere with a variety of devices that are probably in constant use around the White House. Not to mention that they can be defeated easily enough by an intruder with a little knowledge; the primary use for electrified fences is to contain cattle, and even the stupidest White House fence jumper is brighter than a cow, although maybe not by much. File that idea under Not Feasible.

On the other side of the issue is the public space / public architecture community, those people who, Frost would say, do not love a wall. They were well-represented by the WaPo's Art and Architecture critic, Phillip Kennicott, who came out swinging with a column that included this:

The loss of public space and the intrusion of the security apparatus into daily life are not merely inconveniences. Among the most cherished symbols of democracy is openness, including direct access to our leaders. Politicians, in a democracy, must understand that holding elected office means not only maintaining that direct connection to the people, but also incurring some inevitable measure of risk. If they do not wish to run the risk, they should not run for office.

It is not reasonable to ask a free people to continually submit to police control; doing so becomes ingrained, and when we freely submit to unreasonable searches, we lose the all-important, reflexive distrust of authority that helps keep us free. We must not allow the ever-increasing, ever-more-powerful security apparatus to train us in slavish behavior, or our deepest habits will conform to their darkest estimation of our worth.

Whoa! Is he saying that there is inherent risk is open public spaces and democratic systems? And that because our public office-holders wanted those jobs they must accept the unavoidable risk that comes with them? And that it is necessary for free people to distrust authority lest they internalize a condition of slavery? I say that's bold talk for an architect, and I agree with him one hundred percent.

So, how big a security problem are these fence jumpers? Not all that big, historically. So far as I can tell from the public literature, the last time there was a systematic review of White House security was during the Clinton administration, and it produced a report that documented a typical pace of 3 to 5 intruders and gatecrashers per year from the 1970s onward. All but a few of them have been innocuous.

What to do about those few fence jumpers who are dangerous? Since landmines are now off the table, why not go with ex-Director Basham's call for a better fence? Even Kennicott would agree that is the least intrusive option that is likely to be effective.

As it happens, the White House fence is currently being renovated, so this seems to be an ideal time to do a little redesigning:
The White House fence along Pennsylvania Avenue is being moved about 16 feet farther from the building while the original fence is being restored.

The restoration, which was supposed to be completed by the end of September, has taken longer than expected and is now likely to be finished in March [TSB note: if you couldn't tell, this is a government project], Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, National Park Service spokeswoman, said. In the meantime, chunks of the barrier that separate excited tourists from the president’s house are being moved back incrementally.
I had never before paid attention to the White House's perimeter fence, and now that I do, I can't believe what a crappy barrier it is.

A section of temporary fence (left) in front of the original

The fence looks to be barely six feet high, and it's mounted atop a wide stone base that makes a nice step to stand on while you grab the top rail and pull yourself over. Even better, someone placed handy ledges and platforms just outside the fence to give an intruder more hand- and foot-holds.

That's the White House's first line of defense against intruders? That is incredibly weak. I don't think the Secret Service was paying attention when they approved that design.  

That stone base makes a handy seat for protestors, too

It's just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Penns. Ave fence to the house

Seriously, the Secret Service ought to beef up that fence. Increase the height of the pickets by at least another foot, remount the pickets to the outer edge of that stone base in order to make it useless as a step (or bevel or round off the base to accomplish the same thing), and maybe cover the lower portion of the fence with a little transparent material to make it harder to climb while not visually detracting from the architectural openness stuff that Mr. Kennicott is going on about.

A mundane improvement, I suppose, but maybe that's all it would take to slow down the next nut for a critical few seconds while the legions of White House security forces react.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Jane Austen Can Teach Us About Designing Fortress Embassies

Visit OBO here

The good people of OBO have released the minutes of OBO's Industry Day 2014, which I have been happily browsing all day. It's chock-full of great discussion between OBO officials and the architects, engineers, and assorted others in the construction field who are working on, or want to work on, all those Fortress Embassies functional, secure, and sustainable works of art that are OBO's chief product.

I particularly enjoyed the back-and-forth between OBO Director Lydia Muniz and one of the industry attendees on the neuroscience of landscape perspective. It turns out that Prospect-Refuge theory is an established category of analysis in the design field, and it holds that people like landscapes that let them see out (so as to scope out the terrain for threats) while not being seen (refuge).

Anyway, Ms. Muniz scoffed when her interlocutor insisted that there is neuroscience on this subject which proves men and women react to the same landscape differently, with the men responding more to the prospect part and the women more to the refuge part. That is treading dangerously close to political incorrectness.

Well, I don't know about neuroscience, but I do know that literary critics have studied prospect and refuge in the novels of Jane Austen, which makes them both sound plenty female to me.

Of course, the Industry Day discussion frequently touched on the impositions of security standards on the work of embassy designers. I was pleased to see that Director Muniz made no apologies for that. Good for her.

But, I notice how quickly the word "but" got inserted right after anyone at Industry Day made a ringing declaration about the utmost importance of security. See page 14 of the minutes for this one:
“We have high performance standards. Security is of the utmost importance to us, but … “
And page 42 for another one:
“And I know, again, the security question is of the utmost importance, but … “ 
But really, it's okay. I fully understand. I'm just kidding you, OBO, you know that. I kid. I kid because I love.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Select Benghazi Committee Holds First Hearing September 17

And awaaaaaay we go!

Summer is over, Congress is back in session, and tomorrow the new House Select Committee on Benghazi will pick up where we left off a couple months ago when it holds its first hearing. The hearing's topic is how the State Department has implemented the recommendations of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, which seems like an easy one, a little warm-up before the really contentious stuff begins later on.

You can read the ARB report here, and view some additional documents here.

Tomorrow's witness panel will consist of Gregory Starr, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, and two members of the The Independent Panel on Best Practices, an outside panel of experts which critiqued Diplomatic Security operations in response to one of the ARB recommendations.

You can read the independent panel's report here.

The hearing will be on Wednesday, September 17, at 10:00am. You'll be able to view it live at the Committee's website. It will be Safe For Work, I think, although that might depend on where you work.

The Democratic side of the Select Committee has already put up a prebuttal website - Benghazi on the Record: Asked and Answered - to get its spin in place. It has a good collection of links to previous reports and public statements.

It's anybody's guess whether or not the Committee will resist the lure of this week's allegations of 'document scrubbing' by Hillary cronies and stick to its announced topic.

Monday, September 8, 2014

When You Can Match That, I'll Be Impresssed

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, one of his father's 37 sons