woody zimmerman 118 2007On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican independence activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attacked guards at the Blair House in Washington, in an attempt to assassinate President Harry Truman, who was temporarily living there. In a wild gun-battle lasting just over a minute – later described by agents as the “biggest gunfight in Secret Service history” – the two assassins shot their way onto the grounds of the residence, mortally wounding White House Policeman Leslie Coffelt before being stopped by Secret Service agents and White House police officers. They were narrowly prevented from entering the house.

Capitol Policemen Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs were both badly wounded; Officer Coffelt died of his wounds in hospital after killing Torresola.  After receiving severe wounds, Officer Downs kept the assassins out of the house by diving into the basement entrance and locking the door. Finally, Collazo was wounded and captured by Secret Service Agent Vincent Mroz.

During the gun-battle, as Torresola took shelter on one side of the house to reload his Luger, President Truman appeared at an upstairs window to see what was going on. He was standing in full view, no more than 30 feet from Torresola. Agents and policemen frantically shouted for the president to get away from the window. Mr. Truman was not injured. All officers recovered from their wounds except Leslie Coffelt. A plaque honoring his action on that day still hangs at Blair House. Collazo was later tried in federal court and sentenced to death, but President Truman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

I know a little more about this incident than most people because my old friend Charlie Benner – then a young man working in DC – was an eyewitness. He was sitting at the lunch counter of Whelan’s Drug Store, across from Blair House, when the gun-battle erupted. “At first we thought it was a movie being filmed,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing you see every day…” The wild shootout was a near-miss for Mr. Truman. Only the determined actions of Secret Service agents and several White House police officers saved his life.

Many Americans can still recall the terrible events of November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was gruesomely shot to death while riding in an open car on a street in Dallas, Texas. Later analysis showed that the security-prep of the president’s travel route was substandard. Security experts noted that several upper-story windows were standing open along the route. Films clearly show it. One open window was on the sixth floor of the School Book Depository building, where it is believed the fatal shots were fired. Experts said there should never be open windows along a secure travel-route. Thus, it’s possible that negligence by Secret Service agents assigned to protect Mr. Kennedy might have contributed to his death.

In more recent years, armed attacks were made on both Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. There were actually two incidents involving Mr. Ford – both in California. The first occurred in Capitol Park, Sacramento, on September 5, 1975, when Lynette Alice (“Squeaky”) Fromme, 27, pointed a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol at the president, but did not fire. Secret Service agents immediately apprehended her. The pistol was later found to have four rounds in its magazine, but no cartridge in the firing chamber. Miss Fromme was convicted of attempted assassination of the president and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1987 she escaped from a federal prison camp, but was recaptured after two days. Following the death of former President Ford, she was paroled in 2009. Now 65, her whereabouts are unknown.

Just seventeen days after Fromme’s arrest, Sarah Jane Moore, 45, attempted to assassinate Mr. Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. She fired a single shot from her .38 caliber revolver, narrowly missing the president but slightly wounding taxi-driver John Ludwig, who was standing inside the hotel. As she raised her arm for a second shot, Marine-veteran Oliver Sipple – who was standing near Moore – dived toward her and knocked her arm, preventing her from firing. Agents later credited Mr. Sipple with saving the president’s life. Mr. Ford was unhurt, although somewhat shaken by the incident. Moore received a life sentence, but was released in 2007 after serving 32 years. She still lives in Charleston, WV.

The attack on President Reagan occurred just outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, on March 30, 1981. The assassin was John Hinckley, Jr. – a disturbed loner whose erotic fixation on actress Jodie Foster had evidently motivated his attack on Mr. Reagan. Psychiatrists said he was “obsessed” with Miss Foster, whom he had never met. They had no personal connection.

After making a speech inside the hotel, the president passed through the “president’s walk” and left the hotel via its T-Street (NW) exit. The Secret Service had carefully screened all attendees at the president’s speech, but admitted to making “a colossal mistake” by letting a small unchecked crowd, including Hinckley, gather near the hotel exit. The president walked right past Hinckley, who fired six .22 cal. (long rifle) shots in 1.7 seconds from his Röhm RG-14 revolver. All six shots missed Mr. Reagan, but the first shot struck Press Secretary James Brady in the head. Two shots struck Police Officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, as they tried to shield the president. Hinckley had a clear shot at Mr. Reagan when Officer Delahanty fell, but he fired high. His fifth shot hit the limousine’s window, and the sixth shot ricocheted off the car’s side and struck Mr. Reagan in the left underarm. The bullet grazed a rib and lodged in his lung, stopping just one inch from his heart. Special Agent Jerry Parr had quickly pushed Mr. Reagan into the limousine, thereby saving him from being struck in the head.

In the aftermath of the shooting, neither Mr. Reagan nor the Secret Service realized that he was seriously wounded. Had agents not driven him directly to the George Washington University Hospital – a trip of just 4 minutes – he would almost certainly have died of his wound. At the hospital entrance he collapsed with breathing-distress as he tried to walk in under his own power. The media publicized Mr. Reagan’s witty quips, asking hospital staff if they were Republicans, but his injury was much more serious than the public knew.

It was later found that Hinckley had used bullets designed to explode on impact. Only the one which struck James Brady had exploded, causing him to suffer severe brain injuries. Mr. Brady lived until 2014, but was permanently disabled by his wound. Mr. Reagan made a full recovery, as did Officer Delahany and Agent McCarthy. Hinckley received a life sentence, which he is still serving. His repeated requests for parole have been denied.

These various presidential incidents – all occurring within my own lifetime – came to mind in recent days, when reports emerged of an intruder, identified as Omar Gonzalez, who scaled the White House fence, ran 70 yards across the lawn in full view of guards, and entered the residence through an unlocked door. No shots were fired by the Secret Service or police, nor were guard-dogs released to run him down on the lawn. Initial Secret Service reports claimed that Gonzalez was apprehended just inside the White House’s north portico. But later reports showed that he had run through a hallway and several rooms of the first floor, including the East Room and the Green Room, where agents finally “tackled” him. Initial reports also said Gonzalez was unarmed, but it was later revealed that he carried a knife. A stash of firearms and ammunition was also found in his car. No members of the Obama family were in the residence at the time, and Gonzalez met no members of non-security staff as he ran through the rooms.

An obviously embarrassed Secret Service Director Julia Pierson admitted to a House Committee that the security breach was “unacceptable,” but offered no credible explanation for how the intruder succeeded in penetrating the White House security perimeter. Nor did she explain why the White House door was unlocked at the time.

At almost the same time that Director Pierson was testifying on this incident, word was leaked by Secret Service insiders – speaking on condition of anonymity – that an armed security contractor with a criminal record had ridden on an elevator with the president, during Mr. Obama’s visit to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Noticing that the man was acting in an oddly unprofessional manner, Secret Service agents detained him and subsequently discovered his background. The man was immediately dismissed from duty by Secret Service officials, who were then further shocked when he offered to surrender his weapon. They had not known that he was armed. (At this writing, he remains unidentified.)

You don’t need a vivid imagination to see that the White House incident could have become a horrible tragedy, had it occurred just moments earlier, while Obama family members were still in the White House. Even greater was the tragedy-potential with Elevator Man: an armed man, with a criminal record, standing just inches from the president in a confined space! And Secret Service agents had no idea who he was. Had he had evil intent, he could not have been stopped in the split-second it takes to fire a weapon. A more dangerous situation is hard to imagine.

What’s going on here? Like most Americans, I don’t know much about the Secret Service’s inside game. But I suspect that incompetence and a culture of negligence is at the heart of the Service’s problems. Politicization might be a factor, too. Julia Pierson’s promotion to Director came with the explicit task of improving the Secret Service’s image, following a gross scandal that involved USSS agents mixing with prostitutes at a Summit of the Americas conference in Cartagena, Columbia – attended by the president in April 2012. Director Pierson seems to be an agreeable lady, but is that real a credential for the job? Her primary qualification seemed to be her status as the Secret Service’s highest ranking woman. A Secret Service agent since 1984, she had served in the protection-detail for Presidents G. H. W. Bush, Clinton, and G. W. Bush.

Was Miss Pierson truly the best choice for Secret Service Director? Maybe, but color me Doubtful. President Obama earned diversity kudos by appointing her, but putting a “better face” on the Secret Service seems a very flimsy assignment. I suspect that we’re seeing now what happens when you choose leadership of a crucial protective organization in this way.

Both political parties have been in full cry about Director Pierson’s stewardship of the USSS. For once, even Democrats are upset about the failure of an arm of Mr. Obama’s government. After all, this could endanger their guy. But I don’t want him harmed, either. No one does. We’re humans being first, and partisans much later. The Secret Service has to do better.

I doubted that Miss Pierson could survive these serious security-lapses, and as I completed this article her resignation was announced. Until the Secret Service gets its act together, I advise Mr. Obama to pack a piece. He might need it when the next “white Hispanic” busts in through the front door. We live in dangerous times.

blair house

Blair House today at 1651-1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington. (In 1950, a guard post stood at the front sidewalk.)

The plaque at Blair House commemorating Officer Lesslie Coffelt’s death in the gun-battle of November 1, 1950, that saved President Truman’s life. It reads:

leslie coffelt plaque

In honor of

LESLIE COFFELT

White House policeman

who gave his life in defense of

the President of the United States

here at Blair House, November 1, 1950

“For loyalty, bravery and heroism

Beyond the call of duty”

Presented by National Sojourners

in commemoration of his sacrifice.

Dedicated May 31, 1952, by President Harry S. Truman