Julia Pierson, Director of the Unites States Secret Service, is sworn in before testifying during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Secret Service and the recent security breach, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2014. (UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was in the hot seat Tuesday as she faced pointed questions by Congress about recent lapses in security at the White House.
Appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Pierson was asked to explain how Omar Gonzalez, a U.S. veteran suffering from PTSD and armed with a knife, was able to scale the White House fence, sprint across the North Lawn and make his way well into the residence.
"It's clear that our security plan was not properly executed. This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility," Pierson said in her opening statement.
"On September 19, a man scaled the north fence of the White House, crossed the lawn while ignoring verbal commands from uniformed division officers, entered through the front door and was subsequently arrested on the state floor.
"Immediately that night, I ordered enhancements around the complex and, in consultation with the Secretary [of the Treasury], initiated comprehensive reviews of the incident and protective measures to ensure this will not happen again.
"The review began with a physical assessment of the site and personnel interviews. All decisions made that evening are being evaluated, including those on tactics and use of force in light of the totality of the circumstances confronting those officers.
"I am committed to the following: a complete and thorough investigation of the facts of this incident, a complete and thorough review of all policies, procedures, protocols in place that govern the security of the White House complex, and our response to this incident, and based on the results of that review, a coordinated, informed effort to make any and all adjustments to include training and personnel actions that are necessary to properly ensure the safety and security of the president and the first family, and the White House."
Pierson noted there have been 16 fence jumpers since 2009, including six this year. But unlike others, Gonzalez was able to make his way into the White House.
So how far did Gonzalez get?
Pierson qualified a Washington Post account that reported Gonzalez "ran into the 80-foot-long East Room." As Gonzalez hurtled through the wooden door of the White House while it was being manually locked, Pierson testified that the agent tackled Gonzalez and the two engaged in a struggle around a corner, and that Gonzalez "stepped momentarily into the East Room."
Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) also pressured Pierson to answer questions about Secret Service lapses highlighted by the Washington Post, including a 2011 incident in which the Secret Service was initially unaware the White House had been shot at by gunman Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez.
Although Pierson was not in charge of the Secret Service at the time, she said that her review of the three-year-old investigation found there were reports of gunfire but that "it took time to understand" what the target had been. Ultimately, she said she believes the Secret Service responded appropriately to that incident.
Elijah Cummings (D-MD) voiced concern about the culture of the Secret Service, and cited the recent Post article about the 2011 incident. According to the Post account, Secret Service Officer Carrie Johnson believed she heard gunfire strike the White House that night, reported it to senior officers that evening but did not challenge a different account offered by her superiors the following day "for fear of being criticized."
In response, Pierson said she plans to speak with Johnson to determine why the account offered to the Post was not included in the official investigation record.
Pierson thanked Congress for supporting the Secret Service during a "time of constrained resources," and underlined that she intends to see the Secret Service "through these challenges."