Security issues surround shooting at White House


WASHINGTON -- Clinton administration officials emphasized yesterday that Saturday's shooting at the White House underscored the wisdom of controlling firearms, but the terrifying incident also raised the issue of whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the way President Clinton is being protected.

"It's not only Pennsylvania Avenue that is threatened by these type of weapons," Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff, said. "It's probably every street in this country."

But this weekend was the second time in less than two months that presidential security has been breached -- and each time Secret Service agents could do nothing to prevent the incidents.

Last month, Frank Eugene Corder of Aberdeen piloted a stolen airplane into supposedly impenetrable White House airspace and crashed against the White House itself. He was killed. The president and his family were across the street at the Blair House.

On Saturday, a man walking on Pennsylvania Avenue lifted a semi-automatic rifle from under his trench coat and sprayed the White House with up to 30 rounds before being wrestled to the ground by a Hagerstown man and another tourist from Texas. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Normally there are tourists, dignitaries, White House aides, and media personnel going to and fro in front of the White House.

Francisco Martin Duran, 26, of Colorado Springs, Colo., was charged yesterday with willfully damaging federal property and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The charges carry a maximum 20 years in federal prison and fines of $250,000, and more charges could follow. "I would not eliminate assassination statutes," said Secret Service spokesman Carl Meyer.

Mr. Duran, a hotel worker, was scheduled to be formally arraigned before a U.S. magistrate today. He remained silent at Washington's central cellblock, and the Secret Service described his demeanor as "completely flat."

The gunman's motives also remained a mystery, but officials said that a note was found among his belongings, which outlined how he would want his affairs handled if he died. The note, which one administration official called "closer to a will than a suicide note," did not contain any threat to President Clinton.

The Army said Mr. Duran spent 2 1/2 years imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., after he was convicted in March 1991 on charges of aggravated assault with a vehicle, drunk and disorderly conduct, drunken driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. He was dishonorably discharged and released in September 1993.

Top administration aides and those in charge of protecting the president took great pains to say that everything was business as usual. They also bristled at the suggestion that the president's security had been compromised.

"The president has great confidence in the Secret Service to protect him and his family," said White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Asked if there had been a breakdown, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for enforcement, Ronald K. Noble, scowled at a news conference and replied, "I think that's unfair." The president, he insisted, was "not in any danger."

This was an apparent reference to the fact that the windows of the White House residence, where Mr. Clinton was watching a football game Saturday, are bullet-proof. But the windows in the White House briefing room are not. One of those windows was shattered by the gunfire.

The press room is often used by top administration officials, including the president. Less than 24 hours before Saturday's incident, Vice President Al Gore was in the room to brief reporters.

Mr. Panetta has ordered that Saturday's incident be added to a review of presidential security ordered after the Sept. 12 plane crash. Sources familiar with that probe said it was expected to include a recommendation that the airspace around the White House be monitored 24 hours a day.

The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for notifying the Secret Service in the event of a breach of that airspace, but the FAA apparently wasn't required to position anyone in front of a monitor in the predawn hours when there is little air traffic at National Airport.

Correcting that oversight, which one White House official said he believes has already occurred, is relatively easy. What is more difficult is figuring out how to respond to a plane. Firing a missile at it -- such weapons were reported in the 1980s to have been placed on the White House roof -- seems to carry the risk of hitting nearby office buildings or an innocent aircraft.

Likewise, Saturday's attack raised a host of questions that administration officials didn't yet want to answer:

* The Secret Service has recommended that Pennsylvania Avenue be closed to the public, a move that would snarl Washington traffic and keep tourists away from one of the city's most well-known landmarks. But if this is such a concern, why doesn't the Secret Service have a permanent presence outside the White House gates?

* Why didn't the sharpshooters or other agents on duty shoot at the gunman when he poked a rifle through the wrought iron fence on the north side of the White House and opened fire?

* Why isn't the glass bullet-proof in all White House rooms that face the street?

* Has the president insisted on the kind of freedom of movement that puts him in jeopardy?

Mr. Clinton has banished agents from his second-floor living quarters. He also goes jogging -- with little notice to his security detail -- on a familiar route through Washington streets, leaving himself exposed and his security detail nervous.

In fact, Mr. Clinton's normal route takes him right by the spot on 17th Street where Mr. Duran's truck was found parked.

Mr. Noble declined to discuss any aspects of protecting the president, saying that would be like "giving the combination to a lock."

What he found more significant is that the suspect's Chinese-made SKS semiautomatic rifle was bought Sept. 13, the day President Clinton signed the crime bill, which outlaws several types of semi-automatic weapons, commonly referred to as assault rifles.

"I think anyone who was walking around the streets of America can see why the president cares so much about getting weapons like these off the street," he said. "Whether he pointed in the direction of the White House, or pointed in the direction of Lafayette Park, or north, or south, we as American citizens should be concerned."

This theme was stressed all day at the White House by officials -- and by others who have an eye on the results of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

"This incident highlights why we need comprehensive gun control legislation at both the state and federal level," said Vinnie DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. Legislation to ban the very weapon used in Saturday's attack passed the House of Delegates in 1991 and 1992 but failed in the state Senate, Mr. DeMarco said.

"Ellen Sauerbrey voted against it both times," he added.

David Seldin, a campaign aide to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Parris N. Glendening -- and former Clinton White House aide -- also telephoned The Sun's Washington bureau to make this point about the Republican candidate for governor.

There appeared to be evidence that Mr. Duran may also be motivated by strong political passions about gun control: His S-10 Chevy pickup truck had a bumper sticker reading, "Those who beat their guns into plows will plow for those who don't."

Officials said the gun was legally sold and suggested it was illegally altered to make it more powerful.

As a felon, Mr. Duran could not legally own the weapon. But current law only requires that he fill out a form attesting to not having a record. Under the terms of the Brady Bill, officials said, a background check on rifles will not go into effect until the technology is there for that check to be performed immediately, estimated at five years away.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad