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Secret Service director admits failures

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight Committee. (Associated Press)
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies Tuesday on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight Committee. (Associated Press)
Alicia A. Caldwell Associated Press

WASHINGTON – 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 fired immediately 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 she is the one who briefs Obama on threats to his personal security and that she had 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 of Massachusetts 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 Pennsylvania Avenue’s 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.

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