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Secret Service Director Admits Mistakes In White House Breaches


Omar Gonzalez was indicted today on federal and local charges. He's the man who ran through much of the ground floor of the White House with a knife before the Secret Service finally stopped him. The federal charge, unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The September 19 incident prompted lawmakers to come back from recess today to grill the director of the Secret Service about how this could happen. NPR's Juana Summers was on Capitol Hill today for the hearing.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Secret Service director Julia Pierson said the recent security breach at the White House never should have happened.


JULIA PIERSON: It's clear that our security plan was not properly executed. This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility. And I will make sure that it does not happen again.

SUMMERS: But Pierson's promise to thoroughly review the incidents and the way the agency carries out its mission of protecting the president did little to satisfy lawmakers. One of those lawmakers is Congressman Stephen Lynch. He's a Democrat from Massachusetts.


REPRESENTATIVE STEPHEN LYNCH: I wish to god you protected the White House like you're protecting your reputation here today.

SUMMERS: Lawmakers pressed Pierson for more details, questioned her leadership and criticized the commitment of her agency. She repeatedly said that mistakes had been made, but for angry and frustrated lawmakers, that admission and her assurances weren't enough. Representative Gerry Connolly is a Democrat from Virginia.

REPRESENTATIVE GERRY CONNOLLY: Miss. Pierson, I don't doubt for a minute your sincerity. What I said was I don't sense any sense of outrage about what happened.

PIERSON: We all are outraged within the Secret Service of how this incident came to pass. And that is why I have asked for a full review. It's obvious, it is obvious that mistakes were made.

SUMMERS: At the center of Tuesday's hearing was the agency's response on September 19 when Omar Gonzalez scaled the White House fence and made it across the lawn into the mansion. The Secret Service initially said he'd been tackled just inside, but Gonzalez actually got much farther. Congressman Lynch of Massachusetts.

LYNCH: To talk about somebody transversing the White House foyer, the full length of the East Room, down to the Green Room - to the American public, that would be half of a White House tour.

SUMMERS: Lynch and other lawmakers wanted to know why Pierson and other Secret Service officials had mislead Congress and the public about just how far Gonzalez got just before he was captured. And there were still more questions. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, demanded to know from Pierson why the Secret Service had put out a statement saying its officers had shown tremendous restraint of force when Gonzalez breached the fence.


REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: I want it to be crystal clear - you make a run and a dash to the White House, we're going to take you down. I want overwhelming force. Would you disagree with me?

PIERSON: I do want our officers and agents to execute appropriate force for anyone attempting to challenge or breach the White House.

SUMMERS: Lawmakers also grilled Pierson about a 2011 incident at the White House where it took four days before the Secret Service realized a man had fired a semi-automatic weapon at the White House, first reported by The Washington Post. Lawmakers said the agency and Pierson must do more. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa chairs the White House Oversight Committee.


REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The Secret Service must show us how there was a clear path back to public trust.

SUMMERS: Pierson was appointed to the Secret Service's top job in March 2013. And it was the agency's first female director. She's a 30-year Secret Service veteran who took the job with the mission of cleaning up the agency's culture after the 2012 prostitution scandal involving agents in Colombia. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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