Secret Service Director Julia Pierson accepted full responsibility Tuesday for a serious breach of White House security that has undermined confidence in her agency across Washington.
Lawmakers in both parties expressed dismay that a man with a knife was able to dash through the president’s house, with Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzCongress's latest hacking investigation should model its most recent Fox News Audio expands stable of podcasts by adding five new shows The myth of the conservative bestseller MORE (R-Utah) arguing that agents should have used deadly force to stop the intruder, identified by authorities as Omar J. Gonzalez.
“I want it to be crystal clear: You make a run and a dash for the White House, we're gonna take you down,” Chaffetz said at the House Oversight Committee hearing. “The message should be overwhelming force.”
“What concerns me most about this report is agents said they were hesitant,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel's top Democrat, regarding a separate 2011 incident in which a gunman fired shots at the White House. “Ladies and gentlemen, something is awfully wrong with that picture.”
Pierson confirmed to lawmakers that the intruder, who scaled the White House fence 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.
“It's clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” Pierson said. “This is unacceptable, and I take full responsibility.”
The Secret Service director said in her prepared testimony that the agency has apprehended six people for jumping over the White House fence this year alone.
In response to questions, she noted that other people who have jumped the White House fence were caught quickly.
“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.”
The breach is the latest in a series of security breaches for the Security Service, which is also dealing with the aftermath of a 2012 scandal in which agents allegedly brought prostitutes back to their hotel ahead of a presidential visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
In addition, 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.
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.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) 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,” Issa said. “It could well be a planned attack from a terrorist organization.”
Pierson also fielded tough questions from lawmakers who suggested there are signs that the Secret Service has sought to hide the seriousness of the breaches.
Initial reports about the incident suggested the intruder had been tackled immediately after entering the White House front door.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the revelations that ran counter to what the agency initially told the public were “troubling.”
“The Secret Service is not a secret society,” Norton said.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) accused Pierson of a cover-up.
“You keep minimizing this stuff,” Lynch said. “I wish to God you protected the White House the way you're protecting your reputation.”
Pierson maintained that the Secret Service had thoroughly investigated both incidents.
“Let me be clear, the Secret Service does not take any of these incidents lightly,” Pierson said in response to Lynch.
But Lynch responded forcefully: “I know people are dancing around this issue, but I gotta call it like it is,” he said. “I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership.”
"An internal investigation by the Secret Service is not sufficient," Issa said as he closed the public hearing.
Fewer than 20 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.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said the Secret Service should take measures to make the fence harder to penetrate.
Holding up a sign for ADT Security, he asked, “Have you heard of these guys?”
Other members said the Secret Service was becoming too complacent.
“The pattern of lax security and following basic protocols indicate a culture at the Secret Service that needs to change,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said.
Horsford urged Pierson to penalize anyone in the Secret Service who did not adequately follow security procedures.
“This president has far too much to worry about. He should not have to also be concerned with his personal safety and security and that of his family,” Horsford added.
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Updated at 4:15 p.m.