It's been a really bad day for Julia Pierson, a decades-long veteran of the Secret Service, who took over the elite agency last year to reform a male-dominated culture that was plagued by scandal. She was appointed to the top spot after 13 agents charged with preparing for President Obama arrival for a summit in Colombia were investigated for cavorting with prostitutes and other bad behavior.
Now Pierson is the one under fire because of a security breach in which an armed intruder, Omar J. Gonzalez, successfully bypassed five layers of protection as he jumped the White House fence earlier this month, overpowered a guard and made it into the East Room before he was tackled. The Obamas had left for Camp David before the intrusion occurred.
"It's clear that our security plan was not executed properly. I take full responsibility. What happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again," Pierson said in her opening remarks at an emergency Oversight and Governent Reform Committee hearing Tuesday morning during which House lawmakers gave her a bipartisan shellacking over this and other security concerns.
Why, they wondered, didn't agents unleash the K-9 Unit dogs trained to attack intruders, or why didn't the agents shoot at Gonzalez, an Army veteran, themselves? Why wasn't the front door of the White House locked? Why didn't previous interactions in August with Gonzalez — when he was discovered carrying a hatchet — raise red flags?
"An intruder walked in the front door of the White House. That is amazing — and unacceptable. Common sense tells us this was a significant security failure — not an instance of praiseworthy restraint," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California). "How on earth did it happen? This failure has tested the trust of the American people in the Secret Service, a trust we clearly depend on to protect the president."
Lawmakers also were flummoxed by reports of an incident in 2011 in which it took four days before the Secret Service realized that shots from a high-powered rifle had been fired at the White House when the Obamas were away, with several hitting their residential quarters — and only after a housekeeper noticed broken glass and cement on the floor.
The delay has been attributed in part to differences of opinion between agents and their supervisors about what had actually happened, yet another glaring example of the dysfunction in the agency's culture. According to Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Oversight Committee's ranking Democrat, some agents feel more comfortable being whistleblowers than they do talking with Pierson and other higher-ups.
"It is very disturbing to know that Secret Service agents, in the most elite protective agency in the world, feel more comfortable, apparently, from what I’m hearing, coming to members of this committee and telling things than coming to you and members in the agency. That, I’m telling you, when I boil all of this down, that to me is dangerous," Cummings said. "It goes — it has to go against morale. I don’t even see how good decisions can be made if your own people don’t feel a level of comfort that — or they feel fear that they are going to be able to talk about the things that concern them."
Cummings and other lawmakers also questioned the level of transparency at the agency and why they learned certain details about the Gonzalez incident in the Washington Post, such as the fact that he was carrying a knife and how far he got inside the White House, that were not in the agency's initial report to Congress.
"Now, we may hear some things in the classified briefing that may cause me to feel different. But when I say my trust is eroding, it's eroding from two perspectives: trust with regard to transparency and trust with regard to competency," he said in an interview on MSNBC after the hearing. "So that's a problem."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)