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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

World

Firestorm over White House security after new fence jump

AFP | Saturday, Oct 25, 2014

WASHINGTON - For once, the debate gripping Washington is not about party politics.

It's about the White House fence. Is it high enough? Should it be electrified? Are tourists allowed to get too close to the building?

After a series of security lapses that raised questions about the safety of the US president, do authorities need to change or reconsider the fence surrounding the First Family's residence in the heart of the city?

White House fence jumpers are hardly a new phenomenon.

But the spectacular breach that saw an Iraq war veteran sprint across the White House lawn in mid-September and enter the building with a knife in his pocket has rattled the US Secret Service, which is tasked with protecting the president.

A complete security review was ordered, and the results are due in two weeks.

The arrest of yet another fence-jumper this week has fueled the debate over how to best secure the building where American presidents and their families have lived and worked since 1800.

President Barack Obama's administration has stressed its commitment to finding a balance between the "top priority" - protecting the president - and making sure the symbol of American democracy does not become a fortress.

"It certainly would be possible to build a multi-story bombproof wall around the 18-acre complex of the White House," spokesman Josh Earnest said.

"But that, I don't think would be striking the appropriate balance." He said experts were considering a range of measures, such as deploying more personnel and technology, or placing additional fences or other barriers.

"It's not just protecting a popular tourist destination; it's about protecting the symbolism of that popular tourist destination continuing to be accessible to the American public and to the individuals who are responsible for electing the person who lives there," Earnest said.

Tourists visiting Washington for the first time are often surprised by the almost unobstructed view of the White House.

From the North, across from Lafayette Square, the gardens surrounding the building seem surprisingly easy to reach, with an iron fence about 7.5 feet (2.2 meters) high the only barrier.

Maintaining the concept of accessibility is key, even if visitors clearly cannot just walk through the front door unhindered.

Washington's non-voting representative in the US Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, this week demanded a taller fence with a curve at the top that would make fence-jumping more difficult.

But she also warned against the temptation to push tourists farther away.

Any changes to access "should be in line with current public access to the areas surrounding the White House and maintain the current views of this historic and national landmark," Norton said.

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