For the second time in less than two months, bullets were fired at the White House on Saturday, this time landing on the president's back porch and nearby grounds.
President Clinton slept through the latest incident, which occurred just after 2 a.m. EST, when shots were fired from the direction of the grassy Ellipse behind the White House. Four bullets were recovered.One bullet landed on the first-floor balcony of the South Portico and a second dropped on the rear driveway, said Secret Service spokesman Dave Adams. Two others, found later, also were near the portico.
The Clintons were upstairs asleep at the time.
"They were never in any danger," said another service spokesman, Eric Harnischfeger. No one was injured and no one was taken into custody.
The incident nonetheless offered a chilling reminder of the violence in American society and revived questions about protection of the president.
Less than two months ago, a gunman sprayed the front of the White House with semiautomatic weapon fire while Clinton was upstairs watching TV. A 26-year-old Colorado man, Francisco Martin Duran, has been charged with attempted assassination in that incident and is awaiting trial.
Secret Service agents said it was too soon to tell whether the White House was the intended target this time.
"There are bullets raining all over D.C.," said spokesman Carl Meyer. He said it was possible the bullets that reached the White House grounds, apparently fired from a handgun, were "just a stray couple of rounds."
Witnesses had reported hearing four to six shots. Meyer said tests indicated the four bullets found, all 9 mm, came from the same gun.
"The crime-scene search has probably been completed," Meyer said.
He said it "looks like it could be a drive-by" shooting but "I wouldn't preclude anything at this point."
Meyer recalled an incident in which a stray bullet happened to come down harmlessly in the midst of a motorcade carrying President Bush across town.
White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told reporters: "We don't know if it was someone firing haphazardly from the Ellipse, whether it was someone who was driving by and firing." He said the Clintons slept through the shooting and were informed of the incident by agents checking to ensure that they were safe.
With the nation's third-highest murder rate in 1993, Washington has come to symbolize the ills of urban society. Reports of gunfire are common, albeit usually not at the White House.
"We are living at a time when these incidents of violence take place not just in cities and communities around this country, they take place here in Washington in front of the White House," Panetta said on CNN's "Evans and Novak."
After Saturday's shooting, the White House was once again transformed into a crime scene. Yellow police tape was strung around the rear grounds and the adjacent Ellipse park area, blocking access to the annual "Pageant of Peace" display, featuring the National Christmas Tree. Agents began a search at first light, combing the grounds inch by inch searching for bullets or other evidence.
Clinton seemed unfazed by the latest incident. He went ahead with plans to deliver his weekly radio address from a community college in the Virginia suburbs, his motorcade departing from the front drive rather than the rear as is customary.
The president declined to answer reporters' questions about whether he heard the gunshots and whether he felt safe. After the Duran shooting in October, he said he wouldn't hide from danger because "I can't stop being president."
Saturday's shooting was the third major White House security threat in recent months. In September, a small plane crashed-landed on the south grounds of the White House and its pilot was killed.
A review of White House security procedures was ordered after the plane crash and expanded after the Duran shooting. A report is due out in January. Meyer said the investigation of the latest incident has been incorporated into that review.
The Secret Service has long advocated expanding the boundaries of the secure area around the White House, perhaps closing off Pennsylvania Avenue. Meyer said the latest incident could bolster such arguments.
Panetta said the matter was under review but cautioned: "You don't want to turn the White House, the United States of America into a fortress."
Shots fired at White House
Gunshots were fired at the White House Saturday morning for the second time in two months.