WASHINGTON D.C. — U.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson called an incident in which a man scaled a fence and entered the White House “unacceptable” and told a congressional committee Tuesday she takes “full responsibility.”
Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old, knife-wielding Iraq war veteran, entered an unlocked door to the executive mansion, Pierson told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which grilled her on the September 19 security breach.
The door had no remote locking mechanism and needed to be manually locked, Pierson said, adding that such a mechanism has since been installed.
“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” she said. “I take full responsibility. What happened is unacceptable, and it will never happen again.”
Saying she couldn’t give complete responses because presidential protection is highly sensitive or classified, Pierson said the incident remains under investigation and she doesn’t “want to get ahead of the investigation.”
Republicans and Democrats questioned how Gonzalez penetrated “five rings of security” in jumping the White House fence, overpowering a Secret Service officer and running deep into the White House, where he was finally subdued.
“How on earth did this happen?” Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the committee, asked. “Why was there no guard stationed at the front door of the White House, and yes, how much would it cost to lock the front door of the White House?”
Added Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the panel, “I hate to even imagine what could have happened if Gonzalez had been carrying a gun instead of a knife when he burst inside the White House. That possibility is extremely unsettling.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz asked whether officers who caught Gonzalez acted appropriately by not using lethal force. Pierson said the Secret Service agents “did use restraint in making a very difficult decision,” but conceded that she didn’t believe the security plan was properly executed, which is why the incident is being reviewed.
The Secret Service should take a more aggressive posture, not a restrained one, Chaffetz said, and if agents kill someone who has breached White House security, “I will have their back.”
Former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham later said that neither he nor the American public want the Secret Service’s first reaction at seeing someone invade the White House lawn to be: kill that person.
White House fence jumpers
Pierson told the committee that people jump the White House fence a few times a year.
“The Secret Service has apprehended 16 individuals who have jumped the fence over the last five years, including six this year alone. In fact, on September 11, 2014, a week prior to the events that are the subject of today’s hearing, officers apprehended an individual seconds after he scaled the fence and ran onto the grounds,” she said.
Sitting beside Pierson, Basham said the “unprecedented and unacceptable” breach poses difficult questions about the use of lethal force and the tolerance for additional fortifications around the executive mansion. There are no easy answers, and long-term consequences of any changes must be thought through, he told the committee.
Last week, a law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said that prior to the intrusion, Secret Service agents interviewed Omar Gonzalez twice before determining both times that they didn’t have enough reason to keep him.
Pierson confirmed reports raised by a committee member that two Secret Service agents saw Gonzalez near the White House fence on September 19, prior to the breach, and “observed him for some time.” Ultimately, Pierson said, the agents determined that Gonzalez wasn’t acting inappropriately or violating any laws.
Later, referring to the Secret Service’s contacts with Gonzalez before the September 19 breach, she said that there’s not a lot that the service can do to manage “people with mental illness who do not commit a crime.”
The Secret Service has said the Gonzalez has acknowledged having post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re limited by the system we have to work within: the laws of our country,” Pierson said.
Incidents strain public trust
The Gonzalez breach and other “misbehaviors” and security failures by the Secret Service have “tested the trust of the American people” and blemished the Secret Service record, Issa said.
The California Republican cited several examples of misbehavior, including a reality TV subject crashing a state dinner, a 2012 prostitution scandal, an agent falling asleep outside a room in the Netherlands and gunshots fired at the White House in November 2011 — an incident in which damage wasn’t properly reported.
Committee members pointed out that in regard to the 2011 incident, The Washington Post reported a Secret Service employee was told to stand down after hearing gunshots near the White House, and then felt unable the next day to contradict her superiors’ false belief that the White House wasn’t shot at.
Cummings called the report a “major problem,” and Pierson said the contention that the officer did not challenge her supervisors for fear of being criticized is a concern.
“It’s unacceptable,” she said.
Answering another question from Issa about why damage to the White House wasn’t initially detected, but rather, found days later, Pierson defended her agency’s response and said records show the Secret Service “did respond properly” by sweeping the area to see whether anyone was injured and whether there were obvious signs of damage.
Rep. Trey Gowdy and Pierson had a contentious exchange over why the Secret Service did not know that the White House had been struck by gunfire until days after the incident. Gowdy repeatedly asked Pierson why a housekeeper — and not the Secret Service — discovered the gunshot damage to the mansion.
She answered, in part, that agents swept the area that night to look for injuries or an intruder and found nothing. She noted that it was also difficult to see at night.
The committee said that it would hold an executive session following the hearing so that Pierson could address some of the sensitive questions being asked.