Secret Service gets an earful from Norton on checkpoint lines

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton lambasted the Secret Service for its “massive failure” in managing the tens of thousands of people who attended Wednesday’s 50th anniversary event of the March on Washington.

In her letter Thursday to Secret Service Director Julia A. Pierson, Mrs. Norton criticized the agency for its poor planning and preparation in designating a single entry point for the general public. Long wait times combined with temperatures in the upper 80s led to an uncomfortable experience for many attendees.

“It is inexcusable that people had to wait on their feet for long hours in such hot and humid conditions,” Mrs. Norton said in her letter. “The congestion at the security check point at the general public entrance to the event caused huge lines and wait times, which left visitors, many of them elderly, frustrated and even ill and overcome by the heat and rain.”

At the height of Wednesday’s bottleneck, the Secret Service released a statement saying it was aware of the delays and was “working diligently to process people as quickly as possible through the checkpoints.”

About halfway through the anniversary event at the Lincoln Memorial and with wait times of as much as 2 hours, officials added two additional magnetometers to the nine originally in place and opened other entry points where they conducted bag checks and operated hand-held metal detector wands.

Mrs. Norton called the additions belated and said that they only served to point out that “with routine, advanced planning, the misery your agency caused could have been avoided.”

“I am well aware of the standards for effectively controlling large crowds, which your agency is capable of meeting,” the District’s nonvoting member of Congress said. “I am, therefore, very disappointed that you failed to prevent an organizational breakdown that was entirely unnecessary.”

In a statement released Thursday evening the Secret Service said “every effort was made to adapt with resources and personnel to accommodate the surge in attendees that arrived after 11 o’clock for security screening. Throughout the entire event, we continued to process people to make sure that everyone that wanted to attend the event was able to attend.”

The agency charged with protecting the president and other dignitaries, said it will conduct an after-action review with the National Park Service to see if there are areas for improvement.

Gates opened at 9 a.m. for the general public security checkpoint at the entrance to the World War II Memorial. Within an hour, the security tent was choked, with some people leaving from frustration or discomfort.

The D.C. fire department provided medical assistance to more than 100 people and transported seven people to hospitals. Most ailments were heat-related, department spokesman Oscar Mendez said.

The lines eventually thinned by the time former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton took the stage at about 2:30 p.m., and for the address by President Obama shortly after 3 p.m.

Agents continued to search attendees even as Mr. Obama concluded his address, while several hundred people chose to simply watch the event from outside the checkpoint.

Mrs. Norton in her letter requested a meeting with Ms. Pierson to discuss the breakdown.

“There is no doubt that the many failures could have been prevented,” she said.

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