Although improved security was deemed an urgent priority after an intruder climbed the White House fence last fall, changes have been months in the making, in large part because of competing requirements from at least a dozen government agencies and organizations.
WASHINGTON — Just after a Secret Service official shouted “Go!” and started a stopwatch, an agent hurtled toward a 10-foot-high fence with curving rods at the top.
Intended to slow any climber, the rods unexpectedly served as handholds that allowed the agent to hoist himself over the fence, a variation of the cast-iron barricade at the White House. The feat took less than 7 seconds, even less time than it took two intruders to jump the 7-foot fence surrounding the Executive Mansion last year.
Since fall, the Secret Service has conducted dozens of tests on possible modifications to the White House fence, recruiting some of the agency’s best athletes — including tall, short, hefty and thin volunteers — to serve as pretend fence jumpers at a rural training ground outside Washington, D.C. The agency, officials said, has tweaked and winnowed the options and should be ready to add extra safety features to the current fence by summer, with a newly designed fence to be installed a year later.
Although improved security was deemed an urgent priority after an intruder climbed the fence along Pennsylvania Avenue last September and got into the White House, the fence enhancements have been many months in the making, in large part because of competing requirements from at least a dozen government agencies and organizations. This is Washington, after all, and the nation’s most important residence.
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“Do you want it to look like a fortress?” said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, one of the groups reviewing designs of security enhancements at historic buildings in Washington. “How can we accommodate what we deem to be necessary protections without spoiling the civic experience?”
The Secret Service, which has been under siege for a series of safety lapses and agent misconduct in recent years, is leading the effort to revamp the fence. But the fence is controlled by the National Park Service. The sections that extend to the Treasury Building next to the White House are overseen by that department, while the stretches around the Eisenhower Executive Office Building are governed by the General Services Administration.
The groups focused on architecture — such as the Commission of Fine Arts and Washington’s Historic Preservation Office — are trying to ensure that the people’s house, as the White House is sometimes called, stays true to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original design for the capital city. Those groups want tourists to be able to walk up to the fence, which has been prohibited since the September incident by bicycle racks that keep visitors at least 10 feet away. Secret Service officials acknowledge they cannot make the fence foolproof; that would require an aesthetically unacceptable and politically incorrect barrier.
Prison or Soviet-style design is out, and so is anything that could hurt visitors, such as sharp edges or protuberances. Instead, the goal is to deter climbers or at least delay them so officers and attack dogs have a few more seconds to apprehend them.
The changes to the fence are just one of several security improvements that have been made to the White House since last fall. More uniformed officers are on duty and are receiving more training. There is also a new lock on the White House front door.
And the Secret Service is asking Congress for $8 million to build a full-scale replica of the White House at the training center to give agents and officers a more realistic way to train for attacks that might come.
Secret Service officials are reluctant to provide details about their tests, but they said their initial notion of making the fence higher turned out to make it easier and faster for climbers because the longer bars gave climbers more to grip.
Immediate modifications will be bolted or soldered on the existing fence. In addition, there might be alterations to the White House grounds — not a moat, as many citizens have suggested — but other barriers.
“When I hear moat, I think medieval times,” said William Callahan, assistant director for the office of protective operation at the Secret Service. He said it was more likely changes would be made to the landscaping and topography on the South Lawn to improve security.
A contractor has been named to come up with designs, based on the testing in recent months, for a replacement fence that agency officials hope will be ready to install in summer 2016.