WASHINGTON – Secret Service Director Julia Pierson assumed full responsibility for the recent unprecedented breach of White House security by an armed intruder and assured lawmakers on Tuesday that steps are underway to assure that similar incidents don’t recur.
“It will never happen again,” she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
But panel members, in a bipartisan showing, displayed little sympathy toward Pierson or understanding of the security lapse, repeatedly attacking her for the agency’s failure to properly protect President Obama, his family and others at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) led the charge, asserting at one point that he doesn’t believe Pierson or the Secret Service she leads is taking the incident seriously enough, telling the director, “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation today.”
“I’m sorry. I hate to be critical, but we have a lot at stake here,” Lynch said. “I’ve got to call it like it is. I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership.”
The incident that sparked the hearing and recriminations occurred on Sept. 19 when Omar Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran armed with a three-inch serrated knife, jumped the north fence onto the White House grounds, ran across the lawn, up the steps of the North Portico and into the front door of the White House, which was unlocked.
Pierson told the committee that Gonzalez “knocked back” one Secret Service agent inside the Executive Mansion and then fought with another as he moved past a staircase that led to the president’s residence and into the East Room. He eventually was subdued in the Cross Hall outside the Green Room.
Pierson informed the committee it was an off-duty Secret Service agent, who coincidently happened to be walking through the facility to exit at the time, who subdued the intruder.
According to reports, Gonzalez’s family said he was wounded during his tour of duty and subsequently experienced psychological problems. He faces charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon, which carries a sentence of up to ten years upon conviction.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, characterized the event as “amazing – and unacceptable.”
“Inexplicably, Omar Gonzalez breached at least ‘Five Rings’ of security on Sept. 19,” Issa said. “The White House complex is supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the country, if not the world. So, how on earth did this happen? This failure has once again tested the trust of the American people in the Secret Service – a trust already strained by a string of recent scandals.”
Issa noted that in recent years a pair of “paparazzi-craving-reality-TV stars,” the Salahis, crashed a state dinner, agents were dismissed after engaging prostitutes during a trip to Cartagena and were involved in a bout of “excessive drinking” during a stop in the Netherlands. Over the past few days it was revealed the agency mishandled a situation in 2011 when a gunman sprayed bullets into the White House, causing almost $100,000 in damage.
“Morale at the agency appears in decline,” Issa said. “In light of the recent break-in, we have to ask whether the culture at the Secret Service and declining morale have impacted operational security.”
Pierson acknowledged that “our security plan was not executed properly” and that she immediately ordered security enhancements around the White House complex in wake of the Gonzalez incident — an automatic emergency locking system is now in place at the north door. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has demanded a full investigation.
“All decisions made that evening are being evaluated, including decisions on tactics and use of force, in light of the totality of the circumstances confronting those officers,” she said.
Pierson noted that problems exist within the agency. She reported that 16 individuals have vaulted the White House fence over the past five years – six just in this past year. Only Gonzalez made it into the building.
“Let me also say that I recognize that these events did not occur in a vacuum,” she said. “The Secret Service has had its share of challenges in recent years – some during my tenure and some before – of which this is the most recent. I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform, the important individuals we protect and the American people we serve.”
The service, Pierson said, has actually upgraded White House security measures over the past five years including perimeter cameras, officer booths, vehicle access gates and command and control systems, along with enhancements to highly classified programs “that have made the president and complex more secure.”
“We remain dedicated and committed to protecting the president and first family and the sanctity of the White House complex within the bounds of the Constitution and laws of the United States,” she said.
But lawmakers were far from assured, noting that the initial reports regarding the Gonzalez incident indicated the intruder barely got through the door – actually he wandered far into the executive mansion before he was subdued.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pointedly told Pierson that the message should be “crystal clear — if you dash at the White House we are going to take you down.” Intruders like Gonzalez, he said, could be armed with an explosive device or some other undetected weapon that could cause serious damage.
But Pierson said lethal force can only be employed if an individual poses an imminent threat to himself or herself or others. Based on reports, she said, agents appeared to use proper restraint.
Lawmakers remained angry throughout the exchange with Pierson, with several insisting that her demeanor and responses failed to project sufficient outrage over the incident.
“I believe that you have done a disservice to the president of the United States,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) told her at one point.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Pierson had not offered her resignation to the president in light of the incident.