Being the official residence of the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, it is obvious that the White House has the best security available in the United States, or maybe even the world. Over the years, the security of this iconic building has been radically upgraded. What measures keep the American President safe everyday? Let’s find out…
With the alien invasion of the White House premises in the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Hollywood movies began a long and cherished tradition of having this iconic landmark attacked, captured, or completely wiped out, to the thrill of the audiences around the world. Nine such cinematic security breaches have occurred so far, and it is fairly certain to happen again in the future.
Until the first few years of the 20th century, the White House was completely open to public visitation, despite being invaded by unruly mobs of the president’s supporters on a regular basis. However, in recent decades, the security of this building has become much more dense, and restrictions to public visits have increased drastically.
Public tours of the White House had been temporarily suspended in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. When these tours were restarted, security measures around the building had been drastically upgraded. The tours themselves are now limited, with strict background checks done for all visitors before they can gain access inside. However, attacks on the White House happened before 9/11 too, and even after that, despite the new security measures.
History of Attacks on the White House
|―Aug 24, 1814||At the peak of the war of 1812 between the United States and England, British soldiers attacked the White House. However, they found the place empty, so they ate the food left in the building, ransacked the place, and set the mansion on fire. Fortunately, then President James Madison and his wife had already fled to safety when the event occurred.|
|―Aug 16, 1841||To curb the fluctuation in the value of currency and the rampant occurrences of bank fraud, President John Tyler had tried to reestablish the Bank of the United States. Angered by this decision, supporters of the bank gathered outside the presidential residence in large numbers, throwing stones, firing guns, and burning effigies of the president. To make sure that such an incident did not happen again, the police force of Columbia was formed.|
|―Feb 17, 1974||A young US Army private by the name of Robert Preston was flunked in flight training. Allegedly angry with this decision, he stole a helicopter from an airfield and flew it to the White House, where he hovered above the south lawn. He soon fled the scene when a State Police helicopter tried to apprehend him. After a brief chase, Preston returned to the White House. This time, responding to the unidentified threat, Secret Service guards let out a storm of bullets towards the helicopter, forcing Preston to land. He was captured with a few injuries, and was admitted for psychiatric evaluation.|
|―Dec 25, 1974||Marshall Fields crashed his car on this Christmas day through the gates of the White House premises, and drove up to the north portico, where he was surrounded by Secret Service officers. Fields, who was dressed in an Arab robe, claimed that he was the Messiah, and threatened to detonate the bombs that he had attached to his body. After negotiating with him for nearly four hours, officers got Fields to surrender. The alleged explosives attached to his body turned out to be ordinary flares.|
|―Mar 16, 1984||David Mahonski was an electrician with a history of drug abuse, mental instability, and a habit of loitering around the White House, making threats towards then President Ronald Reagan. On this night, security officers spotted him near the fence of the south grounds. As the officers approached, Mahonski pulled out a shotgun from his jacket, but was immediately shot in the arm by a guard. David was then arrested and ordered to go for psychiatric treatment.|
|―Jan 21, 1985||On the day of Ronald Reagan’s second term swearing in, a man named Robert Latta decided to see how far he could get into the White House premises, just for fun. He simply walked behind the 33 member Marine Band into the premises, right past the White House security. Once inside, he strolled around the residence for nearly 15 minutes, before he was spotted and caught by Secret Service agents. Despite interrogation and a search for weapons and explosives, security found nothing on him. Latta was then charged with unlawful entry, where he posted bail in court and returned home.|
|―Sep 12, 1994||After allegedly going through a mental breakdown due to problems in his marriage, army veteran Frank Eugene Corder got intoxicated and flew a Cessna airplane into the southern wall of the presidential mansion, dying on the spot. Due to renovations, then President Bill Clinton and his family were fortunately not in the building at the time. This serious breach of airspace security caused officials to make many changes in the security measures there.|
|―Oct 29, 1994||A few months after the Corder incident, a man named Fransisco Duran fired several shots from his gun at the White House. Secret Service agents tackled and wrestled Duran to the ground, before arresting him. Although the president was present in the mansion, and a bullet did manage to go through a window in the west wing, nobody was hurt. In court, Duran was found guilty of trying to assassinate the president, and is still in jail for his crime.|
|―May 23, 1995||Another attempt was made to attack the building when a man named William Modjeski climbed a fence and ran towards the building with a pistol in his hand. A Secret Service officer fired and hit him in the arm, injuring another officer in the process. Modjeski was found not guilty, by reason of insanity. However, he was sent to a mental facility for treatment until 1999.|
|―Feb 7, 2001||Robert Pickett, an IRS employee with a history of mental instability, brandished a handgun at the tourists and policemen outside the White House, before firing several shots. After a brief stand-off, a Secret Service agent shot him in the knee, and subdued him. Pickett was made to spend two years in a prison hospital, where he received psychiatric treatment.|
Apart from these incidents, there have been several other instances where people have jumped over the fences of the President’s residence, only to have been apprehended by security officers. Keeping this very real danger of attacks on the White House in mind, the security measures around this building have increased drastically in number and complexity over the past few years.
White House Security Features
► Iron Fence: The fence surrounding the White House premises is the first layer of defense. Made from reinforced iron, this fence is 7½ feet tall. Although it was initially very close to the building, the area was expanded by an entire block in the 1990s in order to increase the distance between vehicular traffic and the White House. This prevents car bombs from getting close enough to cause any damage. Following the recent spate of people jumping over the White House fence, new metal spikes have been added in May 2015, which are expected to make it much more difficult for people to trespass.
► Infrared Sensors: With the help of infrared technology, security is able to read heat signatures coming from people who might jump over the fence, which is especially helpful in situations where normal vision is impaired.
► Concrete Barriers: This is a secondary layer of protection, which stops vehicles that attempt to break through the fence. These barriers are soon expected to be replaced with mobile steel plate barriers.
► Secret Service Agents: These officers come from a special division of the Department of Homeland Security, and are stationed in teams around the property. They carry a wide arsenal of weapons, including pistols, shotguns, and machine guns. A team of snipers are always stationed on the roof of the building, who can shoot a target as far away as 1,000 yards away. Whenever the president enters or exits the building, a team of SWAT agents take their positions on the roof. There are approximately 1,300 such agents, who are specially trained to protect the current and past presidents and their families, from when the president takes office until 10 years after they leave.
► Restricted Airspace: The area above and around the building is completely restricted to all kinds of aircraft. Radar and lasers are used to detect any intrusion into the restricted airspace, 24/7. This helps security forces respond promptly to any aerial threat. After the 9/11 attacks, this area was enlarged, and the rules were enforced more strictly. Airspace surrounding the building is protected by Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS).
► Food Scanners: All food items, whether brought for the preparations of the house chef, or brought by a visitor, is thoroughly checked at an offsite station.
► Bullet Proof Windows: All 147 windows of the property are made from high-quality, resilient ballistic glass. This glass was first installed on the windows in the 1950s, and have been protecting the house since then.
► Entry Screening: After the September 11 attacks, any person visiting the White House has to go through a strict background check before getting access to the property. They are also screened with a magnetometer to search for concealed weapons.
► Air Filtration System: The White House also has a state-of-the-art air filtration system, which keeps any type of contaminant―natural or man-made―out of the building.
► PEOC: The Presidential Emergency Operations Center is a secure area built six stories below the east wing of the White House. It is used by the president as a meeting place in times of emergency. This room can be accessed only with an elevator that is behind multiple vault doors, opened using biometric systems. For security reasons, the specifications of the area are classified. What is known is that, the room can withstand a direct nuclear strike.
► Secret Metro Tunnels: When the Washington Metro Subway was first planned in the 1950s, then President Eisenhower had a secondary secret underground rail system built alongside the public one. This rail system connects the White House to several important buildings, such as the State Department, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and various bunkers in the Washington area. Further expansion of this tunnel system is expected, but obviously the details are classified.
► DUCC: In 2011, a Deep Underground Command Center was constructed under the west wing. It protects the president and key staff in times of crisis. It also has a massive data communication facility connected to all military, intelligence, and federal agencies. This means that the DUCC can function as a secondary Oval Office in case of an emergency. Although most specifications of this room are classified for security purposes, it is estimated to be around 5,000 square feet in area. The president has a trap door under his desk, which he can use to quickly access the new command center.
And it’s safe to say that, besides these measures, there must be several security features that have not been revealed to the public.
As you can see, the White House is provided with maximum security. However, it is difficult to say if it is the most secure building in the world, as other structures, such as Fort Knox, Cheyenne Mountain, Alcatraz Prison, etc., also have similar security strength, if not more.