WASHINGTON – 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 them it would never happen again.
Pierson acknowledged the agency charged with protecting the president had failed on Sept. 19 when it allowed a man to jump the fence at the home of the president of the United States, burst through the front door and run into the East Room, which is used for events and receptions.
“This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility,” she told a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the incident, promising a complete review of agency procedures.
“We are all outraged within the Secret Service at how this incident came to pass. It is self evident mistakes were made,” Pierson said.
Pierson said that the front door of the White House now has an automated lock when there is a security breach. It did not have one at the time of the intrusion.
The incident is the latest black mark for the agency, 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.
In a hearing of more than three hours, lawmakers repeatedly criticized the agency and questioned Pierson on the rules for using lethal force. When the man entered the White House, he struggled with an officer inside the door, crossed into the East Room and was subdued and arrested in the hallway outside it.
Members of both parties said the incident damaged the agency’s reputation and punctured the image of invulnerability that helps protect President Barack Obama. The president and his family had left to spend the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David shortly before the intrusion.
Republican Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said there was no guard posted at the front door of the White House that evening and fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old Iraq war veteran, breached five rings of security. Gonzalez will return to federal court on Wednesday where he has been charged with unlawful entry while carrying a weapon.
“The White House is supposed to be one of America’s most secure facilities,” he said. “How on Earth did this happen?”
Another Republican, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, pressed Pierson about when officers can use lethal force against an apparent threat and criticized the agency’s restraint.
“The law requires that law enforcement officers ensure that they are in imminent danger or others are in imminent danger before they can leverage lethal force,” Pierson said, but she acknowledged those were independent and difficult decisions.
Chaffetz said in the modern era of suicide bombers, “tremendous restraint is not what we’re looking for.”
Chaffetz asked Pierson: “I want it to be crystal clear. You make a run and a dash at the White House, we’re gonna take you down. I want overwhelming force. Do you disagree with me?”
Pierson replied, “I do want officers and agents to execute appropriate force for anyone intending to challenge and breach the White House.”
Pierson said the Secret Service had apprehended 16 fence jumpers in the last five years, including six this year. On Sept. 11, someone was caught seconds after scaling the fence, she said.
Lawmakers questioned why Gonzalez had escaped more scrutiny from the Secret Service. In July, he was arrested by Virginia State Police for reckless driving, eluding police and possessing a sawed-off shotgun. There were 11 guns in the vehicle including shotguns, handguns, and sniper rifles, and a map of Washington, DC, police records showed. Gonzalez was released on bond.
On the map, which was tucked into a Bible, the White House and the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia, were circled, federal prosecutor David Mudd said in court.
In August, he was stopped, but not arrested, while walking along the south fence of the White House with a hatchet in his waistband.
“When does the red flag come up for the Secret Service?” asked Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch.
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.
Pierson said she would defer some issues about procedures and the security breach to a closed classified session with committee members. 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.”
She said the agency was down about 550 employees from its optimal level, and there had been staff reductions as a result of automatic spending cuts and “other fiscal constraints.”