The Secret Service has been getting a lot of flak recently just because a White House fence jumper made it all the way into the East Room. And back in 2011, they didn’t notice the building had been shot for four days. Plus, there was all that stuff about prostitution and agents drunkenly partying all over the world.
Obviously, none of this is good, but it also isn’t new. While agents have put their lives on the line countless times, they’ve also made some egregious errors. Here’s a look at some of their biggest and most bizarre blunders, from the potential assassin who was granted a meeting with Theodore Roosevelt to the tourist who was able to wander around the White House during Reagan’s second inauguration. (There’s no official history of Secret Service debauchery, so you’ll have to use your imagination.)
Armed man asks to see Theodore Roosevelt, gets invited into the Red Room.
Congress asked the Secret Service, which was created as part of the Treasury Department in 1865 to combat counterfeiting, to begin protecting the president in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley. It didn’t take long for the agency to let a potentially dangerous man get close to his successor, Theodore Roosevelt.
While he was in the White House, Roosevelt would usually see visitors between 9 and 10 p.m. According to Andrew Tully’s Treasury Agent: The Inside Story, one night a man wearing a top hat, white tie, and tails drove up to the White House and told an usher the president was expecting him. The president said he didn’t recognize the name, but he’d meet with him anyway. After a few minutes alone with the visitor in the Red Room, Roosevelt buzzed for an usher and told him quietly, “Take this crank out of here.” When the Secret Service frisked the man, they found a revolver in his back pocket.
TR was famously shot in the chest a few years later (and delivered a speech anyway), but the Secret Service can’t be blamed for that one. The incident occurred on the campaign trail in 1912, and the agency didn’t start protecting presidential candidates until 1968.
Man barges through the front door of the Taft White House, twice.
Getting into the White House was slightly harder for Michael Winter, but he still managed to do it two times in 1912. The Illinois paper The Day Book reported at the time that “when he reached the White House, he ran swiftly up the steps, dashed past the doorkeeper, and for a moment was lost in the darkness of the hall.” He was caught and thrown out, then “a few minutes later he repeated the performance.” Winter, who had a knife in his pocket, insisted he had to speak to President Taft but wouldn’t say why.
Intruder watches a movie with FDR.
White House security was stepped up during the Great Depression, as President Herbert Hoover was receiving a large number of death threats. The Secret Service increased the size of the president’s detail and began searching visitors’ bags and packages. However, according to former First Daughter Margaret Truman, “slipups still occurred.” She wrote in The President’s House:
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oldest son, Jimmy, tells a story that the Secret Service would rather forget. One night during World War II, he was home on leave and joined his parents at the White House for dinner. Afterward they watched a movie. When the lights came on, a neatly dressed young man, a complete stranger, was standing next to FDR.
The man said he just wanted the president’s autograph, and the president gave it to him before he was escorted out by Secret Service agents.
Army officer steals helicopter, lands on White House lawn.
Private Robert K. Preston flunked out of the training program to become a U.S. Army pilot, so he did what anyone would do: He stole a helicopter from Maryland’s Fort Meade and flew it to the White House just to prove he could. In 1974, Preston led police helicopters on an hour-long chase and eventually wound up hovering over the South Lawn of the White House, where the Secret Service opened fire. The Associated Press reported at the time: “The chopper, its metal skin peppered with buckshot, veered leftward, bounced on one runner, then the other, and settled to a halt, barely 100 yards from the executive mansion itself.”
Preston was tackled by several officers and later sentenced to one year in jail. His mission was still successful, in a way: The officers who pursued him described his flying as “masterful.”
Self-proclaimed “messiah” makes bomb threat outside the White House on Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day 1974, ten months after the helicopter incident, Marshall Fields, the 25-year-old son of a retired American diplomat, rammed his Chevy Impala into a White House gate and parked under the North Portico. Fields was dressed in Arabic-style clothing, claimed he was the Messiah, and appeared to be laden with explosives. His only demand was to speak to the Pakistani ambassador. After four hours of negotiations, he surrendered when Howard University radio broadcast his request for a meeting.
Fields’s “explosives” turned out to be flares. The president was on vacation in Colorado at the time, which is why Fields wasn’t shot. A Secret Service spokesman told the Washington Post, “we had an empty White House on Christmas Day. We have some compassion.”
Man jumps fence, gets near First Daughter.
People jump over the White House fence pretty regularly, but one incident stands out because the intruder managed to wander the grounds undetected for two hours. On Thanksgiving night in 1975, Gerald Gainous hopped over the White House fence and hid in some bushes, then approached the president’s 18-year-old daughter, Susan Ford, while she was unloading her car. He was released on his own recognizance and hopped the fence again ten days later.
Gainous’s father had been convicted of smuggling heroin, and according to an AP report from the time, “Gainous told officials he wanted to ask the president to pardon his father the way he pardoned former President Richard Nixon.”
Intruder wanders around the White House during Reagan inauguration.
A tourist got a 15-minute private tour of the White House as President Reagan was participating in inaugural festivities on January 20, 1985. Robert Latta simply marched in following the United States Marine Band, though unlike the rest of the band, he didn’t have top-secret security clearance or even an instrument and uniform. He was apprehended in the family dining room when an usher noticed he looked out of place.
Latta told the New York Times he didn’t realize he was doing anything illegal by entering the White House and ”just wanted to see how far I could get.” He was in town to see the inauguration and called the experience ”the high point of being in Washington.”