Published: Wednesday 1st October 2014 by The News Editor
The director of the US Secret Service has admitted failures in her agency’s mission to protect president Barack Obama after a man armed with a knife managed to get into the White House.
Under withering criticism from Congress, Julia Pierson repeatedly sidestepped key questions about how the intruder penetrated ring after ring of security before finally being tackled deep inside the US president’s official residence.
Despite the extraordinary lapses in the September 19 incident, Ms Pierson asserted: “The president is safe today.”
Hours later, reports emerged of yet another failure in Secret Service protocol, this time in Mr Obama’s presence.
On September 16, an armed federal contractor shared a lift with Mr Obama and his security detail while the president was visiting the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Washington Examiner reported.
The Washington Post reported similar details and added that the man had three convictions for assault and battery.
The office of Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, who has helped lead Congress’ investigation, said a whistleblower had provided him the same details.
The gun was discovered only because the contractor was questioned after he persisted in taking video of Mr Obama in the lift, the reports said. The contractor was immediately sacked by his employers.
A Secret Service official confirmed the incident reported by the newspapers but declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.
It is unclear if Mr Obama was informed, but Ms Pierson, under questioning at the hearing, said that she is the one who briefs the US president on threats to his personal security and that she had briefed him only once this year, “for the September 19 incident”.
At the Capitol, Democratic and Republican politicians alike expressed the view that the breach of White House security had blemished the agency, and several pressed for an independent inquiry into what went wrong.
They were not assuaged by Ms Pierson’s vow that “I’ll make sure that it does not happen again” or by the agency’s own investigation.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today,” Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch told Ms Pierson at a public hearing that was followed by a classified, closed-door briefing.
Mr Chaffetz said afterward: “The more I learn, the more it scares me.”
Calm but defensive in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Ms Pierson disclosed that shortly before the intruder jumped the fence at least two of her uniformed officers recognised him from an earlier troubling encounter, but did not approach him or report his presence to superiors.
On August 25, Army veteran Omar J Gonzalez was stopped while carrying a small hatchet near the fence south of the White House, Ms Pierson said.
Weeks later, the same officers observed him “for some time” on the Pennsylvania Avenue north side but did not intervene. Gonzalez later went over the fence, sprinted to the unlocked front door and ran through half the first floor of the White House before being tackled.
Gonzalez was indicted on a federal charge of entering a restricted building while carrying a deadly weapon and two violations of District of Columbia law.
At the House hearing, Ms Pierson said she did not know why Gonzalez was not intercepted earlier.
“Personnel actions will be taken” once the agency’s review is complete, she said, in what appeared to be a euphemism for possible discipline or terminations. Politicians stopped short of calling on her to resign.
Mr Chaffetz said he was not there “yet”. Mr Lynch said: “Let’s just say I’m not impressed with how she has dealt with White House security.”
Mr Obama and his daughters had left for Camp David shortly before the episode; Michelle Obama had gone to the retreat earlier in the day.
The president continues to have confidence in the Secret Service, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, though the spokesman urged the agency to release non-classified results from its investigation as soon as possible.
He cited a “legitimate public interest in this matter because it relates to the safety and security of the commander in chief”.
It has also emerged that there was a four-day delay in 2011 before the Secret Service realised a man had fired a high-powered rifle at the White House.
The Washington Post reported at the weekend that some Secret Service officers believed immediately that shots had been fired into the mansion, but they were “largely ignored” or afraid to challenge their bosses’ conclusions that the shooting was not directed at the White House.
Such breaches, combined with recurring reports of misbehavior within the agency, cause “many people to ask whether there is a much broader problem with the Secret Service,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the committee.
“The fact is the system broke down,” said committee chairman Darrell Issa. “An intruder walked in the front door of the White House, and that is unacceptable.”
Democratic Congressman Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania called the September 19 intrusion “stunning, outrageous, disgraceful”.
Members of Congress briefed earlier by the agency apparently weren’t told of the full extent of the breaches. And the Secret Service wrongly told reporters that the intruder was not armed.
Details which emerged later revealed the intruder ran through the White House and into the East Room, a large room at one end of the building often used for presidential news conferences, speeches, ceremonies and dinners, before being apprehended. In order to do so, he made it past a guard stationed inside the front door.
On his way, the intruder would have passed a stairwell that leads up to the first family’s residence. It was unclear what additional security might have been in place to prevent Gonzalez from attempting to go up if the family at been in the building.
Ms Pierson said the front door to the White House now locks automatically in the event of a security breach. She said that on September 19 a Secret Service guard was attempting to lock one of the doors manually when the intruder knocked the agent down.
Published: Wednesday 1st October 2014 by The News Editor