Secret Service head faces grilling from House panel over White House security

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson will face a grilling from the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday as questions mount about the agency’s ability to protect the first family.

Lawmakers scheduled the hearing last week after Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old Iraq War veteran with a folding knife in his pocket, scaled the fence on the northern side of the White House and sprinted inside the executive mansion before being detained. 

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Questions about the agency’s security procedures intensified Monday after it was revealed that Gonzalez got much farther into the building than previously thought. 

Rather than being tackled immediately, Gonzalez apparently overpowered a female agent, entered the East Room that is regularly used for public events and speeches, and nearly made it into a small parlor room on the mansion’s southern side before being caught.

The Secret Service also reportedly muted an alarm box near the front of the building that would have alerted agents about the intruder.

Secret Service spokeswoman Laura Topolski said the agency was not commenting on the reports “due to the ongoing investigation.”

The startling new details showed the seriousness of the security breach and followed a weekend report in The Washington Post about a separate mishap at the White House.

That story revealed that in 2011, it took days for the agency to realize that a man had fired at least seven bullets into the south side of the building. One of President Obama’s daughters was at home at the time, and the shooter was eventually apprehended only through a series of fortunate events.

Lawmakers responded angrily to the revelations on Monday, 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), chairman of the Oversight subcommittee on homeland security, saying the new details suggested a “failure of leadership.”

“The agency needs a solution that goes deeper than more fences and more people,” Chaffetz told the Post. “It must examine what message is being sent to the men and women who protect the president when their leader sacrifices security to appease superficial concerns of White House ushers.”

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told CBS News he was skeptical Pierson could say anything “that’s going to cause the American people to have confidence after the Secret Service failed to lock the front door as part of its protection of the White House.”

The new revelations were just the latest in a string of incidents that have sullied the reputation of the agency. 

When Pierson took over the Secret Service in 2013, her mandate was largely to help repair a public image tarnished by revelations that agents were drinking to excess and hiring prostitutes ahead of a presidential summit in Colombia.

But embarrassing mishaps have continued under Pierson’s watch. Last March, two agents were sent home after one passed out drunk in the hallway of an Amsterdam hotel where the president was scheduled to stay. Weeks earlier, agents traveling with the president to Miami crashed their rental car and were suspected of drinking and driving.

The Secret Service has pledged a thorough review of the agency’s procedures and performance, and Pierson told The New York Times the agency would “leave no stone unturned.”

“I am committed to a full and robust fact-finding that allows me to look at what went wrong,” she said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president continued to support the agency head, while acknowledging the president and first lady were “concerned about the safety of their children.”

“The president does have full confidence in Director Pierson and other members of the Secret Service to do their very important work,” Earnest said. 

Tuesday’s committee hearing will be split into two parts, a public forum at 10 a.m. and a subsequent classified briefing.

Pierson has requested the closed-door session, saying in a letter to Issa she was worried that she could not provide “frank disclosures” to committee questions without undermining the agency’s mission.

“Publicly airing the very security measures employed by the Secret Service and the various challenges we confront at the White House complex will arm those who desire to cause injury — or worse — to the president and first family with critical information, and doing so would be beyond reckless,” Pierson said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Oversight panel, said he hoped the hearing would not devolve into a partisan fight.

“I think that you can get so caught up in the partisanship stuff that you get into the accusations and trying to grab headlines that you don’t deal with the problems, the weaknesses, and the things that need to be addressed,” Cummings told CBS News. “I’m hoping we leave our political hats at the door.”

Pierson’s testimony Tuesday could be the first of several trips to Capitol Hill.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Monday said he wanted the director to provide a review of its White House security procedures. The Republican lawmaker submitted a list of 11 questions he wants Pierson to answer within the next two weeks.

“My colleagues on the Committee on Homeland Security and I remain concerned about this security breach,” McCaul wrote in the letter. “We are also concerned about what could be perceived as a lack of communication between state officials and the U.S. Secret Service concerning potential threats to the president.”