NEWS

White House intruder case another Secret Service lapse

09/30/2014 06:25 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST
"The United States Secret Service was always considered to be the elite law enforcement agency made up of men and women who were highly regarded, highly respected and highly trusted."

Those are the words of Representative Darrell Issa at a committee hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday reviewing the White House security breach on Sept. 19 when a man jumped the fence, bolted across the lawn and entered the building through the unlocked front door with a knife in his pocket.

Note that Issa spoke in the past tense. The Secret Service "was" an elite law enforcement agency. Is it not anymore?

Issa went on to say that the force charged with protecting U.S. President Barack Obama's life, his family, dignitaries and the White House has a blemished record and that this latest incident is "once again" testing the trust of Americans in the Secret Service.

This is just the latest in a string of embarrassing security lapses and incidents of misconduct that have tarnished the reputation of the Secret Service and called its competency and leadership into question.

There was the uninvited couple who slipped past security and crashed a White House state dinner in 2009.

In 2011, a gunman opened fire, hit the White House with several bullets and sped away in his car. The Washington Post revealed this past weekend how the Secret Service bungled response to that incident.

The following year's scandal involved excessive drinking and prostitutes during an assignment in Colombia. Earlier this year, an officer was found passed out in a hotel hallway in Amsterdam after a night of partying.

Secret Service harshly criticized

Julia Pierson was appointed Secret Service director in 2013 and was supposed to clean up those messes and repair the agency's damaged reputation — at least that was the hope.

But now the Secret Service has been dealt another blow, and she faced an onslaught of questions at the committee Tuesday about what went wrong on Sept. 19, and what's wrong in general with the agency.

"I believe that you have done a disservice to the president of the United States," Representative Steven Horsford harshly told Pierson, referring to the White House intruder. "While the president may not be in a position to publicly criticize this failure to adequately protect his needs, I will."

Members of Congress and others are raising serious concerns about the breach and are frustrated with the continuing troubles with the agency.​

What if the man who jumped the fence on Sept. 19 had a gun or explosives strapped to his body? What if there had been more than one fence-jumper and what if they had been terrorists intent on causing harm? 

The alleged intruder, Omar Gonzalez, is an Iraq war veteran with poor mental health. Secret Service officers encountered him weeks earlier by the White House with a hatchet in his waistband. He was out on bond following an arrest in Virginia in July after police discovered weapons, ammunition and a map with the White House circled. That history is adding to the questions about how the Secret Service handled the incident.

Pierson said she takes full responsibility for what happened and that a review is underway. She said it will never happen again. But there are still many unanswered questions.

"The White House is supposed to be one of America's most secure facilities and in fact one of the world's most secure facilities. How on earth did it happen?" Issa wanted to know.

Pierson defends changes

Pierson didn't offer much of an explanation beyond saying protocols clearly weren't followed and that she's determined to find out why.

The plainclothes officers who mill about the fence didn't notice Gonzalez hopping over; a guard in a booth didn't catch up with him as he made a run for it; the K-9 unit didn't release the dogs trained to go after intruders; a guard wasn't at the front door to block it; the door was unlocked; an alarm wasn't triggered, and the list of failures goes on.

Pierson got a rough ride from some of the lawmakers Tuesday. One of them told her that the agency doesn't seem to be taking its responsibility seriously. Another said the director was brought in to help clean up the previous messes and wanted Pierson to explain how she had gone about doing that.

Pierson responded that she's made her expectations for professionalism clear to her workforce and has zero tolerance for misconduct. She said she's created a new office of integrity and has been training leaders and changing management positions.

Is it working? Not everyone accepts change easily, Pierson told the committee. There's been some "pushback." 

But the changes she's made are taking root, she said. The Secret Service has learned from its mistakes and transition is happening, she insisted.

The force is coping with budget cutbacks that have meant a smaller workforce, Pierson noted, but she did not make a direct link between that and the recent security breach.

'Tactical problem'

What happened on Sept.19 can't be blamed on any cultural issues within the agency either, she said, calling it a "tactical" problem and not a pattern.

A week earlier another fence-jumper — there have been six this year — was immediately apprehended. Mistakes aren't always made.

Pierson acknowledged that the Secret Service has had "its share of challenges in recent years" and that she plans to redouble her efforts to raise its level of performance.

Exactly what happened on Sept. 19 might never be known publicly because of classified information related to the president's security and that could make Pierson's job to defend the Secret Service more challenging.

Despite the security debacle that unfolded that night, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeated Tuesday that while Obama is concerned about his family's safety, he remains confident in the Secret Service.

No one has been fired or disciplined for the mistakes that were made, but Pierson said those actions are "pending" and that any necessary changes to security protocols will be made.

Locking the front door of the White House is among those changes.

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