WASHINGTON: The head of the US Secret Service pledged to revamp her elite agency Tuesday as she was subjected to withering criticism from angry lawmakers outraged over White House security breaches.
Julia Pierson’s grilling before a House of Representatives panel came as a federal grand jury indicted a US Army veteran over a September 19 incident at the White House when he allegedly scaled a fence and made it deep into the presidential mansion armed with a knife.
Omar Gonzalez, 42, was indicted on three counts including unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon. He is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday for a detention hearing.
The Washington Post meanwhile reported a fresh breach in which a security contractor with a gun and a criminal record was allowed into an elevator with Barack Obama when the president visited Atlanta, Georgia in mid-September.
“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” Secret Service director Pierson told lawmakers of the September 19 incident, one of the most serious — not to mention embarrassing — White House security breaches during Obama’s presidency.
“This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility. And I will make sure that it does not happen again.”
House Democrat Gerald Connolly called the incident — the latest in a string of Secret Service gaffs — the result of a “cascading set of mistakes” that put Obama and his family in jeopardy.
Obama “was obviously concerned about this situation,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, adding that the president remains “absolutely” confident in Pierson’s leadership.
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, said he would introduce legislation to create a “blue-ribbon commission” to conduct “a full, top-to-bottom review” of the Secret Service.
Detailing the Atlanta breach, the contractor aroused Secret Service concerns when he refused to comply with an order to stop recording Obama with his phone camera, the Post said, citing three unidentified sources.
But it was the White House incident which had lawmakers demanding to know how somebody could scale the black iron fence, race 70 yards (64 meters) across a lawn, enter unlocked White House doors, knock down an agent, and run into the East Room — without being stopped.
The man was ultimately tackled by an off-duty Secret Service officer who was coincidentally walking through the premises, the Post reported. A search of a car later revealed hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Pierson, who has led the Secret Service since March 2013, said a thorough investigation had been launched. She also acknowledged that the elite service has had its “share of challenges” in recent years.
“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,” she told the House Government Oversight Committee.
“Enhancements will be made and personnel actions will be taken.”
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican, said it was “amazing and unacceptable” that the intruder had breached “at least ‘five rings’ of security.”
“The fact is, the system broke down on September 19, as it did when the Salahis crashed a state dinner in November 2009, or when Oscar Ortega-Hernandez successfully shot at the White House on November 2011.”
Issa also noted other embarrassing lapses by Secret Service agents, including a 2012 prostitution scandal in Colombia ahead of a visit by Obama, and drunk agents in the Netherlands last March.
The 2011 incident was the subject of an explosive recent Post report highlighting how long it took for the Secret Service to determine that the White House was struck by gunfire while one of Obama’s daughters was inside.
Pierson acknowledged that while witnesses saw a man firing shots toward the White House, it was not until “three to four days later” that the Secret Service discovered the mansion had been hit.
Some lawmakers suggested that Pierson, who served for decades as a Secret Service officer before becoming chief, sought to cover up agency lapses that led to the most recent breach.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today,” House Democrat Stephen Lynch boomed. “I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership.”
Republican Jason Chaffetz, who heads the panel’s national security subcommittee, told Pierson that “overwhelming force” — not “restraint” — should be used.
“If the would-be intruder cannot be stopped by a dog or intercepted by a person, perhaps more lethal force is necessary,” he said.
Most White House fence-jumpers — there have been 16 in the last five years — are unarmed and swiftly apprehended.