Lawmakers scold Secret Service over White House breach
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers scolded the head of the U.S. Secret Service on Tuesday over a security breach that allowed a knife-wielding intruder to run deep into the White House, and Director Julia Pierson promised to make changes to ag...
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers scolded the head of the U.S. Secret Service on Tuesday over a security breach that allowed a knife-wielding intruder to run deep into the White House, and Director Julia Pierson promised to make changes to agency procedures to ensure it would never happen again.
"This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility," Pierson told a U.S House of Representatives committee investigating the Sept. 19 incident in which an intruder jumped the fence, burst through the front door and ran into the East Room of the White House.
"It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly," she said, promising a complete review of procedures. She also said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had requested an investigation.
The incident is the latest black mark for the elite agency charged with protecting the president, which has suffered a series of scandals including a lone gunman firing shots at the White House in 2011, a prostitution scandal involving agents in Colombia in 2012 and a night of drinking in March that led to three agents being sent home from a presidential trip to Amsterdam.
Lawmakers from both parties said the incident had damaged the agency's reputation and punctured the image of invulnerability that helps protect President Barack Obama.
"The White House is supposed to be one of America's most secure facilities," said Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa. "How on earth did this happen?"
Issa said there was no guard posted at the front door of the White House that evening and that fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old Iraq war veteran, breached five rings of security.
Another Republican, U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chided Pierson for the agency's statement that officers exercised "tremendous restraint."
"Tremendous restraint is not what we're looking for," he said. "The message should be overwhelming force.
"Don't let somebody get close to the president, don't let somebody get close to his family, don't let them get into the White House. Ever. And if they have to take action that's lethal, I will have their back," he said.
Pierson did not provide details of the breach in her prepared testimony, deferring some issues to a closed classified session with committee members to follow. But she did acknowledge the problems and missteps that have dogged the Secret Service in recent years.
"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."
Obama appointed Pierson, 55, a 30-year Secret Service veteran, in March 2013. The first female director in the agency's 148-history, she was given the mission of cleaning up the agency's culture after the 2012 trip to Colombia in which up to a dozen agents were found to have hired prostitutes.
She promised to redouble efforts to bring the service "to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform."
Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings said the breach had raised more questions about the competency and procedures of the agency, but should not be a political issue. "This is a national security issue," he said.
The president and his family had left to spend the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David shortly before the intrusion.