White House

Secret Service chief on Capitol Hill hot seat over security breach

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 30, 2014, before the House Oversight Committee as it examines details surrounding a security breach at the White House when a man climbed over a fence, sprinted across the north lawn and dash deep into the executive mansion before finally being subdued. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 30, 2014, before the House Oversight Committee as it examines details surrounding a security breach at the White House when a man climbed over a fence, sprinted across the north lawn and dash deep into the executive mansion before finally being subdued. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

A senior Democratic lawmaker said Wednesday he’s “not comfortable” with Secret Service Director Julia Pierson at the helm of the troubled agency and suggested it was time for her to go.

“I have come to the conclusion that my confidence and my trust in this director, Ms. Pierson, has eroded,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee told MSNBC Wednesday morning. “And I do not feel comfortable with her in that position.”

He said later via Twitter that he’d “not decided” about the director, but was “not comfortable about the safety of the president of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who also serves on the Oversight and Government Reform panel, told Fox News that Pierson should resign.

Cummings and Chaffetz were among a number of lawmakers from both parties who expressed little faith in Pierson’s ability to restore trust in the agency, which has suffered a series of embarrassing security breakdowns.

Among them: Not preventing a man armed with a knife from scaling the White House fence and gaining entry to the executive mansion, and allowing a man with a criminal record and who was carrying a gun on an elevator with the president.

Pierson met behind closed doors with lawmakers after a lengthy public hearing, but Cummings said she did not assuage their concerns.

“I went in hoping to hear news that our president was being properly protected and maybe we were missing something,” Cummings said. “But when I left, I was just extremely upset. And to be very frank with you, it was very difficult for me to sleep last night.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said the White House continues to have confidence in the Secret Service and that Pierson had not offered to resign when she met with Obama last week to brief him on the intruder, Omar Gonzalez.

Pierson on Tuesday took “full responsibility” for what she called an “unacceptable” intrusion at the White House last week but failed to mollify a bipartisan group of lawmakers who worried that repeat slipups by the elite agency could leave the president and his family vulnerable to attack.

Pierson, who came in for blistering, bipartisan criticism for the agency’s shortfalls and evasions, said at the outset of the three-and-a-half-hour hearing that it was “clear that our security plan was not executed properly” on Sept. 19, when an armed man jumped the fence and made it deep into the White House before he was tackled.

She pledged a “complete and thorough investigation” and promised that such an incident “will never happen again.”

But members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed little faith in Pierson’s leadership.

And if the recent White House security breach wasn’t embarrassing enough, reports surfaced later in the day that agency protocols also failed during Obama’s recent trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The president apparently shared an elevator with a security contractor who was carrying a gun and had three criminal convictions for assault and battery on his record.

During the hearing Tuesday, lawmakers questioned Pierson about a Secret Service report that the White House intruder, Omar Gonzalez, was unarmed, although it was later revealed he had a knife. The committee members noted that it wasn’t until a Washington Post report Monday night that they found out that Gonzalez had made it as far as the Green Room in the White House.

“To the American public, that would be half of a White House tour,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. “This is disgraceful.”

Lynch noted that Gonzalez, a veteran reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, had been stopped by police in Virginia a month earlier with “small arsenal” of weapons and a map that showed the White House. He then showed up at the White House in August, with a hatchet.

“This is the Secret Service against one individual with mental illness. And you lost. You lost,” Lynch said. “What happens when you have a sophisticated organization with nefarious intent and resources going up against the Secret Service? What happens then?”

To Pierson, he said: “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.”

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he will ask the Department of Homeland Security for a broader review, saying the Secret Service’s internal review “is not enough to provide confidence to the American people.”

Following the hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he would offer legislation to create a “blue-ribbon commission,” composed of experts, to conduct “a full, top-to-bottom review of the agency.”

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama “does continue to have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to perform their very difficult task with professionalism and with the kind of dedication that you would expect.”

Pierson, who met with lawmakers in a closed session after the public hearing, said she was still investigating why a team of officers failed to stop Gonzalez as he raced across the lawn and why the agency’s trained guard dogs were not released. She said in answer to questions that the officers do have the authority to “leverage lethal force when appropriate.”

Several Republicans on the committee called for a more robust reaction to fence jumpers, with Chaffetz noting that the agency had sent out a press release congratulating itself for showing “restraint” in apprehending Gonzalez.

“That’s not what we’re looking for,” Chaffetz said, adding, “I want it to be crystal clear. You make a run and a dash to the White House, we’re going to take you down. I want overwhelming force.”

But other members said the Secret Service has alternatives to shooting, with Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., noting that with staffers, tourists and other visitors, he’d fear a shootout on the lawn of a very “busy and bustling place.”

Former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham testified that a man who came over the White House fence in 1976 was shot and killed because officers believed he had a weapon in his hand. It turned out to be a pipe, and criticism followed, Basham said.

“We could easily be sitting here today discussing why an Iraq war veteran, possibly suffering through the awful curse of post-traumatic stress disorder, was shot dead on the North Lawn, rather than being tackled at the front door,” he said, noting that such decisions are difficult.

Pierson said the agency interviewed Gonzalez after the Virginia incident, met with his family and looked at his medical records. She said he was cooperative and told them that his map was given to him by someone recommending Washington sightseeing locations. She noted the agency’s options were limited by the fact Gonzalez hadn’t made threats.

“It’s a very difficult thing for people dealing with disabilities and people dealing with mental illness when they don’t exhibit any unusual direction of interest in our protectees,” she said. “Mr. Gonzalez, at the time, denied any interest or any intent to harm anyone.”

She was also grilled about an incident in 2011, when shots were fired at the White House. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that it took the agency four days to realize that shots had struck the White House residence – and that was only after a housekeeper noticed broken glass.

Pierson said the agency at the time conducted a “protective sweep of the area to make sure that we did not have any intruders, to make sure that there were no injuries, and obvious signs of anything that had been damaged.”

Obama appointed Pierson, a longtime agency employee, to the post in March 2013, hoping to help the agency recover from a prostitution scandal that had marred its reputation.

Lawmakers expressed concern over reports that the agency wants to expand the security perimeter at the White House, warning that the building should remain accessible to the public, along with neighboring Lafayette Park, a popular spot for protests.

Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., noted that just 48 hours before the incident, Obama had hosted a congressional picnic at the White House, standing behind what looked like a “clothesline” as he posed for pictures with members of Congress.

“I shudder to think if this gentleman would have come 48 hours earlier, or say he had eight or 10 friends with him,” Long said.

Pierson said the agency already has begun to learn from its mistakes. The front door to the White House was unlocked at the time of the incident, but now it has an automated lock.

Lawmakers suggested a few improvements of their own, including raising the height of the 7-foot, 6-inch fence, which dates to 1965. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., suggested planting some spikey Spanish bayonet shrubs to deliver pain to would-be jumpers.

“We don’t have to put cement trucks and barriers in front of the White House,” Mica said. “It’s the people’s house.”

Mica showed Pierson some sympathy, crediting her with being the first Secret Service director to reach out to him in 22 years, to ask for congressional help in improving the agency.

Yet he questioned how it was possible that White House windows were not equipped with alarms that might have sounded during the 2011 shooting incident. He mockingly held up an ADT Security sign familiar in many homes and asked Pierson, “Have you ever heard of these guys?”