The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.
A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family’s formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.
President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother,Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.
Secret Service officers initially rushed to respond. One, stationed directly under the second-floor terrace where the bullets struck, drew her .357 handgun and prepared to crack open an emergency gun box. Snipers on the roof, standing just 20 feet from where one bullet struck, scanned the South Lawn through their rifle scopes for signs of an attack. With little camera surveillance on the White House perimeter, it was up to the Secret Service officers on duty to figure out what was going on.
Then came an order that surprised some of the officers. “No shots have been fired. . . . Stand down,” a supervisor called over his radio. He said the noise was the backfire from a nearby construction vehicle.
That command was the first of a string of security lapses, never previously reported, as the Secret Service failed to identify and properly investigate a serious attack on the White House. While the shooting and eventual arrest of the gunman, Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez, received attention at the time, neither the bungled internal response nor the potential danger to the Obama daughters has been publicly known. This is the first full account of the Secret Service’s confusion and the missed clues in the incident — and the anger the president and first lady expressed as a result.
By the end of that Friday night, the agency had confirmed a shooting had occurred but wrongly insisted the gunfire was never aimed at the White House. Instead, Secret Service supervisors theorized, gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn — an unlikely scenario in a relatively quiet, touristy part of the nation’s capital.
It took the Secret Service five days to realize that shots had hit the White House residence, a discovery that came about only because a housekeeper noticed broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor.
This report is based on interviews with agents, investigators and other government officials with knowledge about the shooting. The Washington Post also reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including transcripts of interviews with officers on duty that night, and listened to audio recordings of in-the-moment law enforcement radio transmissions.
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan declined to comment. A spokesman for the White House also declined to comment.
The episode exposed problems at multiple levels of the Secret Service, and it demonstrates that an organization long seen by Americans as an elite force of selfless and highly skilled patriots — willing to take a bullet for the good of the country — is not always up to its job.
Just this month, a man carrying a knife was able to jump the White House fence and sprint into the front door. The agency was also embarrassed by a 2012 prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, that revealed what some called a wheels-up, rings-off culture in which some agents treated presidential trips as an opportunity to party.
The actions of the Secret Service in the minutes, hours and days that followed the 2011 shooting were particularly problematic. Officers who were on the scene who thought gunfire had probably hit the house that night were largely ignored, and some were afraid to dispute their bosses’ conclusions. Nobody conducted more than a cursory inspection of the White House for evidence or damage. Key witnesses were not interviewed until after bullets were found.
Moreover, the suspect was able to park his car on a public street, take several shots and then speed off without being detected. It was sheer luck that the shooter was identified, the result of Ortega, a troubled and jobless 21-year-old, wrecking his car seven blocks away and leaving his gun inside.
The response infuriated the president and the first lady, according to people with direct knowledge of their reaction. Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about fearing for her family’s safety since her husband became the nation’s first black president.Read more .