Features and Columns · Movies

Could Terrorists Really Take Over the White House?

After two movies in one year depicted the scenario, we looked into the truth of the possibility.
White House Down
Sony Pictures
By  · Published on November 4th, 2013

If there’s anything that people can take from the films of 2013 – aside from the potential danger of living in big cities prone to being crushed by aliens, supervillains, the undead, and whatnot — it’s that it’s hella easy to storm the White House and take the President hostage. After all, this happened not once (as seen in Olympus Has Fallen), but twice (as seen by fewer people in White House Down) at the multiplex.

While White House Down (which had a decent run at the international box office) was a bit of a flop here in the states, Olympus Has Fallen was seen as a springtime hit. Now, Hollywood is already prepping a sequel, recently announced as London Has Fallen (which makes little sense, but I suppose 10 Downing Street Has Fallen just doesn’t have the same ring to it). This got us thinking: Could terrorists really take over the White House as they did in these movies?

The Answer: Anything’s possible, but probably not.

With the exception of J.J. Abrams’ office where he’s storing the draft of Star Wars: Episode VII, the White House is arguably the most secure building in the country. It is protected by physical barricades in the form of a massive iron fence and concrete walls. Dozens of Secret Service agents are assigned to the Presidential residence with enough firepower to take over a small country. An elaborate missile system protects the 1800 square kilometers of restricted air space.

But Hollywood always makes it through. In Olympus Has Fallen, a bomber flies in from Chesapeake Bay and proceeds to shoot up downtown Washington D.C. Fighter jets attempt to intercept the bomber, but they are blown from the sky. After shooting all the snipers on the White House roof, the bomber paves the way for Korean extremists to blow through the iron gate and use modified garbage trucks as tanks with Gatling guns to take out most of the Secret Service on the lawn. In White House Down, an explosion at the Capitol Building serves as a distraction as a crew allegedly fixing the projector in the movie theater brings out their guns and takes the White House from the inside.

While planes have been used to attack Washington before, most notably on 9/11 but also in 1994 when a man flew a Cessna into the bedrooms of the White House, that vulnerability has been addressed. The White House is now protected by NASAMS defense systems, which have a range of 15 to 25 kilometers and are capable of delivering their payload with a head-on collision. Additionally, the bomber seen in Olympus Has Fallen wouldn’t have made it into the country due to the FAA regulations and vetting procedures on unidentified aircraft.

In White House Down, a bomb is smuggled by a faux janitor into the Capitol. However, security for workers and deliveries to this building is rather tight. Visitors aren’t even allowed to bring an apple into the Capitol, and hand lotion is strictly forbidden from being brought into the House and Senate chambers. Additionally, at the White House, rigorous screenings are conducted for anything coming in, including any food for any purpose.

An inside job

Even with all these grand security measures in place (and the likely dozens of others that the public doesn’t know about), all of these Presidential attack movies require a mole to make things work. Inevitably, it’s a disgruntled member of the Secret Service. In Olympus Has Fallen, it’s Dylan McDermott as an ex-agent who is in cahoots with the Koreans. In White House Down, it’s James Woods as the retiring agent motivated by his son’s death. In 1996’s Air Force One, it’s Xander Berkeley in collusion with Russian extremists who masterminds the takeover of the Presidential plane.

You’d think the government would keep a better handle on their agents.

Spoiler alert: they do. The requirements to become a Secret Service agent are rigorous, with it being arguably easier to be accepted into Harvard. While the full extent of the selection process is not made public, thorough background checks and personality testing is done. On a monthly basis, agents are tested in marksmanship to assure they can hit a target at 1000 yards. It’s reasonable to assume personality testing and psychological evaluations are also ongoing.

In fact, one of the few constants in Washington is the thorough job of the Secret Service. Every President since Richard Nixon has had documented assassination attempts, with many more not publicly disclosed. While some agents have come under fire for sextracurricular activities while they’re not on duty, there are no conspiracies between these agents and Korean extremists, anti-government militias, or Russian terrorists. In fact, they’ve actually done a bang-up job protecting the Commander in Chief for the past 50 years.

But nothing’s perfect

While it’s a safe bet that the White House is going to remain secure for decades, there have been some (often humorously) isolated occurrences of White House infiltration. Probably the most famous example is that of Robert Latta, a 45-year-old Denver meter-reader who wandered into the residence of the White House on January 20, 1985. Gaining entry by casually following members of a Marine band, Latta spent about 14 minutes poking around the residence before he was discovered by Secret Service and arrested.

Another recent incident involved Michaele and Tareq Salahi in a stunt for Real Housewives of Washington D.C. On November 24, 2009, the Salahis were able to talk their way into a state dinner at the White House, where they were personally greeted by President Barack Obama. While nothing dangerous came from the incident, the Salahis were investigated by the Secret Service as well as various journalistic outlets. The result was ultimately uneventful, resulting in embarrassment to security, a tightening of procedures, and egg on the face of the Salahis.

Of course, neither Robert Latta nor the Salahis were terrorists, and their White House infiltration was limited to one or two people at a time. It’s a far cry from the events in Olympus Has Fallen or White House Down.

We’re pretty confident that the White House is safe and secure, but like the relatively unrestricted airspace prior to 2001, there are always potential holes. We can only hope that Gerard Butler or Channing Tatum is available if someone manages to find a way past the White House defenses in the future.

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