WASHINGTON (AP) — Under withering criticism from Congress, the director of the Secret Service on Tuesday admitted failures in her agency's critical mission of protecting the president but repeatedly sidestepped key questions about how a knife-carrying intruder penetrated ring after ring of security before finally being tackled deep inside the White House.
Despite the extraordinary lapses in the Sept. 19 incident, Julia Pierson asserted: "The president is safe today."
Hours later, reports emerged of yet another failure in Secret Service protocol, this time in President Barack Obama's presence.
On Sept. 16, an armed federal contractor rode on an elevator with Obama and his security detail while the president was visiting the Centers 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 Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, 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 Obama on the elevator, the reports said. The contractor was immediately fired by his employers.
A Secret Service official confirmed the incident reported by the newspapers but declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation of the event.
Was Obama informed? It was unclear. But Pierson, under questioning at the hearing, said that she is the one who briefs Obama on threats to his personal security and that she had d briefed him only once this year, "for the Sept. 19 incident."
At the Capitol, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike expressed the view that the Sept. 19 breach of White House security had blemished the storied agency, and several pressed for an independent inquiry into what went wrong. They were not assuaged by 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 Rep. Stephen Lynch told Pierson at a public hearing that was followed by a classified, closed-door briefing. Rep. 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, Pierson disclosed that shortly before the intruder jumped the fence at least two of her uniformed officers recognized him from an earlier troubling encounter but did not approach him or report his presence to superiors.
On Aug. 25, Army veteran Omar J. Gonzalez was stopped while carrying a small hatchet near the fence south of the White House, Pierson said. Weeks later, the same officers observed him "for some time" on the Pennsylvania Avenue north side but never intervened. 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 Tuesday 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, 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. Lawmakers stopped short of calling on her to resign.
Chaffetz said he was not there "yet." Lynch said, "Let's just say I'm not impressed with how she has dealt with White House security."
Obama and his daughters had left for Camp David shortly before the episode; Michelle Obama had gone to the retreat earlier in the day.
Obama continues to have confidence in the Secret Service, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday, 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."
Even when their protectors fall short, presidents rarely publicly criticize those who risk their lives to keep the first family safe, but rather express appreciation for their service. That means Congress provides the only real public oversight of the Secret Service.
And Pierson's assurances left lawmakers cold. They were aghast, too, about a four-day delay in 2011 before the Secret Service realized a man had fired a high-powered rifle at the White House.
The Washington Post reported on 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 Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, 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 Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania called the Sept. 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 The Associated Press that the intruder was not armed.
Details emerged only later. Among them: 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. This, after 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.
Pierson said Tuesday that the front door to the White House now locks automatically in the event of a security breach. She said that on Sept. 19 a Secret Service guard was attempting to lock one of the doors manually when the intruder knocked the agent down.
Senate Judiciary Committee staffers who were briefed about the investigation by the administration a week after the incident were never told how far Gonzalez made it into the building, according to a congressional official who wasn't authorized to discuss the investigation and requested anonymity. The official said the committee later was told that the suspect had, indeed, made it far beyond the front door.
Pierson said there have been six fence-jumpers this year so far, including one just eight days before Gonzalez went over.
The Secret Service has suffered other blows to its reputation in the past few years. Pierson's predecessor, Mark J. Sullivan, apologized to lawmakers in 2012 after details emerged of a night of debauchery involving 13 Secret Service agents and officers in advance of the president's arrival at a summit in Colombia. Sullivan retired about 10 months later.
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