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Secret Service expecting big changes after intruder compromised White House receptions room

Secret Service expecting big changes after intruder compromised White House receptions room
The head of the Secret Service took responsibility for recent White House security breaches during a congressional hearing on Tuesday and promised to persevere notwithstanding a number of lapses that occurred on her watch.

Facing heated criticism from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at Tuesday’s event in Washington, DC, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson owned up to the recent instances — including one in which a man with a knife made it into the White House earlier this month — and said that the team responsible for the security of United States President Barack Obama will suffer no further setbacks while she’s in charge.

"It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly. I take full responsibility; what happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again," Pierson promised during her opening remarks at this week’s hearing, speaking specifically of Omar Gonzalez — a 42-year-old military vet who hopped the fence along the north lawn of the White House on Sept. 19 with a knife in tow and made it through the main entrance before being apprehended by the Secret Service.

Reuters/Larry Downing

Speaking to the House panel, Pierson said her agency has since conducted a physical assessment of the White House vicinity and is investigating the decisions made on Sept. 19 regarding tactics and use of force “in light of the totality of the circumstances confronting those officers." Additionally, she said that the front door to the White House — where Gonzalez entered — now locks automatically.

Initially, the Secret Service said the officers who stopped Gonzalez earlier this month exercised "tremendous restraint” in their actions. On the evening before Tuesday’s hearing, however, the Washington Post reported first that the intruder, who is currently in federal custody, made it much further into the White House than previously believed and ended up all the way in the mansion’s East Room before being caught.

Before the committee, Pierson admitted that there have been 16 fence-jumpers in the past five years, including six in just this year, but insisted that she’s capable of helping the agency bounce back.

Alleged White House fence jumper Omar Gonzalez, September 23, 2014. (Reuters/New River Regional Jail)

“I recognize that these events did not occur in a vacuum. The Secret Service has had its share of challenges in recent years,” Pierson wrote in her opening testimony prepared for Congress. "I intend to lead the Secret Service through these challenges.”

“I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform, the important individuals we protect, and the American people we serve," she said.

Despite Pierson’s assurances, however, members of the House committee raised question after question during Tuesday’s hearing concerning this month’s breach, especially in light of the prior evening’s Post report.

"How could Mr. Gonzalez scale the fence and why didn’t officers immediately apprehend him? How was he able to sprint 70 yards, almost an entire football field, without being intercepted by guards inside the fence line? Why didn’t security dogs stop him in his tracks?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), the chairman of the panel, asked at one point. "What about the SWAT team? Why was no guard stationed at the front door of the White House? And why was the door left unlocked?"

"Tremendous restraint sends a mixed message...the message should be overwhelming force,” added Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

According to Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, Gonzalez burst through the front door of the White House earlier this month and, with a knife, “dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.”

“Gonzalez was tackled by a counterassault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident,” she wrote.

A member of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service patrols the North Portico of the White House in Washington September 29, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Secret Service is a federal law enforcement agency of nearly 7,000 employees tasked with protecting the president and other high-importance figures, as well as investigating financial crimes, such as counterfeiting and major fraud. Pierson joined the Secret Service in 1984 as a special agency and was appointed by Pres. Obama in 2013, one year after the department was linked to a prostitution scandal at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia. In 2011, the agency also suffered a significant setback after an Idaho man fired several shots at the direction of the White House — which, according to Leonnig, the Secret Service didn’t realize until four days later.