Lawmakers in both parties on Tuesday called for an independent panel to investigate a series of White House security breaches on the Secret Service’s watch.
House Oversight Committee leaders emerged from a closed-door session with Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, which followed a public grilling, to say they would ask Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to form the panel.
Separately, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he would introduce legislation to create a commission of experts to independently review and make recommendations about the Secret Service’s internal policies and leadership structure.
During the hearing, lawmakers expressed frustration not only with the most recent security breach — a man carrying a knife was able to scale the White House fence and enter the first family’s residence — but with repeated contradictions between news reports and the Secret Service’s initial account of the Sept. 19 incident.
Another detail, previously undisclosed by the Secret Service, emerged on Tuesday: an off-duty agent tackled the intruder, identified by authorities as Omar J. Gonzalez, after he allegedly scaled the fence, entered the White House and ran through the East Room.
The Washington Post report also sparked frustration from the White House, signaling waning patience in the West Wing for the Secret Service’s press operation. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called for the Secret Service to release all information “as soon as possible” about the incident.
“It is my view that it is in the interest of the agency in question and all of you for the information to be accurate and released as soon as possible,” Earnest said. “There is legitimate public interest in this matter because it relates to the safety and security of the commander in chief.”
During the hearing, one lawmaker suggested the Secret Service appeared more interested in protecting its once-shiny reputation than protecting the president.
“You keep minimizing this stuff,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said to Pierson. “I wish to God you protected the White House the way you’re protecting your reputation.”
Cummings said he was troubled by agents’ hesitation to challenge their superiors.
“It concerns me that there are agents that feel more comfortable talking as whistleblowers to members of Congress than they do to their fellow Secret Service members and higher-ups in the Secret Service,” Cummings told reporters after the closed briefing. “That has got to change.”
Pierson told lawmakers she accepted “full responsibility” for the breaches.
“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” Pierson said. “This is unacceptable, and I take full responsibility.”
At the same time, she suggested the most recent case was an exception, noting that six other people have been apprehended after jumping over the White House fence this year.
“I believe the incident on Sept. 19 is not representative of a pattern,” Pierson said. “There have been others that attempted to gain access to the property that were immediately arrested.”
Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOversight chair: 'Ridiculous' to call for investigation into Nunes The Hill's 12:30 Report Secret Service agents set for discipline after fence-jumping incident: report MORE (R-Utah) argued that agents should have used deadly force to stop the intruder.
“I want it to be crystal clear: you make a run and a dash for the White House, we’re going to take you down,” Chaffetz said at the hearing. “The message should be overwhelming force.”
Chaffetz, who is vying to become Oversight Committee chairman in the next Congress, also called for an independent review of the Secret Service during the hearing.
In her testimony, Pierson confirmed to lawmakers that the intruder on Sept. 19 made it farther into the building than previously reported and was not apprehended until he was outside the Green Room. Gonzalez is charged with trespassing and carrying a deadly weapon.
That episode is just the latest in a series of breaches. A report by The Washington Post published Sunday revealed it took the Secret Service days to realize that a man had fired at least seven bullets into the south side of the White House in 2011.
Another report published Tuesday said an armed security contractor with a criminal background was allowed in an elevator with Obama during the president’s visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Sept. 16.
The member of a private security firm did not comply with requests from agents to stop filming the president, reports said, and agents only realized he had a gun when a supervisor for the private security firm came over to address the situation.
All of the incidents have raised serious concerns that the Secret Service is unprepared to defend the White House against a terrorist attack at a time when fears of terrorism are at a high.
Issa warned that the next ambush on the White House could be more dangerous.
“Americans know that the next attempt to take the White House may not come from a crazed, solo, knife-wielding veteran with PTSD,” he said. “It could well be a planned attack from a terrorist organization.”
Only 19 lawmakers came to the hearing, which was held in the second week of the lengthy pre-election congressional recess. Forty members sit on the full House Oversight Committee.
Despite the controversy, none of the lawmakers participating in Tuesday’s hearing called for Pierson’s resignation.
Asked if he thought Pierson should step down, Issa said it was up to the president.
“My challenge has always been to make sure that I challenge agencies to meet certain goals,” he said. “It’s up to the president and the [Department of Homeland Security] secretary to determine whether or not she is the person that’s going to respond.”
Cummings said that “the jury’s still out” on Pierson.
“There’s a tall order here for the director. She’s got a lot of work to do. She believes that she’s up to it,” he said.
Justin Sink contributed.