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Secret Service director promises full security review after White House breach

With questions mounting about the competency and command of the Secret Service, House lawmakers on Tuesday grilled the agency’s director about security breaches at the White House and called for a wide-ranging probe into every level of the elite force.

Julia Pierson faced hours of often tense and hard-edged questioning — from both Democrats and Republicans — that touched off speculation about whether or not she would be able to continue her 18-month tenure.

Pierson sat stone-faced as several members of an oversight committee declared they had lost confidence in her stewardship. Some went further, depicting the Secret Service as adrift and plagued by shortcomings such as the cascade of security breakdowns that allowed a knife-wielding man to reach deep into the executive mansion.

Pierson promised a full review of all tactics, including the use of force, in the wake of the Sept. 19 incident in which Army veteran Omar Gonzalez broke into the White House, the sixth breach of the White House fence in the past year.

“It will never happen again,” she pledged.

w secretservice768 v2 Secret Service director promises full security review after White House breach

But members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hammered back with repeated questions over her ability to direct the agency and whether it was keeping pace with an array of perceived threats such as Islamist militants.

“Americans know the next attempt to take the White House . . . could well be a planned attack from a terrorist organization,’’ said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee.

He closed the hearing by warning that the inquest may not be over: Saying he planned to reach out to the Homeland Security chief on a possible independent investigation that would include the Sept. 19 failings and expand to all aspects of Secret Service operations.

“An internal investigation is not sufficient,’’ said Issa, whose call was backed by several committee members.

The hearing followed a report by The Washington Post that Gonzalez rushed much farther into the White House than authorities initially disclosed.

The report, based on three people familiar with the incident, described how Gonzalez cleared the White House fence, sprinted through the unlocked front door and overpowered an officer. Gonzalez was finally tackled by an off-duty Secret Service agent at the far southern end of the East Room, an 80-foot-long chamber often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

A federal grand jury on Tuesday charged Gonzalez with one federal count of entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon. He was also charged with two violations of District laws: carrying a dangerous weapon outside a home or business and unlawful possession of ammunition.

The D.C. weapons charge carries up to a five-year prison sentence, and the ammunition count up to one year in prison.

The Post report on Gonzalez, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), “turned upside down” previous official claims that Gonzalez was subdued just inside the White House.

Pierson said 16 people have come over the White House fence in the past year, including the six in the past year. Gonzalez, however, is the first known to have jumped the fence and made it inside the executive mansion.

“We all are outraged . . . it is obvious that mistakes were made,” she said

“I take full responsibility,’’ she added. “What happened is unacceptable.”

But Pierson acknowledged that — until after the Sept. 19 breach — the Secret Service did not have the ability to remotely lock or unlock the front door of the White House. The bolt had to be turned by hand, in person.

“There is no such thing as ‘business as usual’ in our line of work,” she said. “We have to be successful 100 percent of the time, and we are constantly making changes and doing everything possible to ensure that we are.”

But members of the committe were withering in their attacks.

“Have you ever heard of these guys?” asked Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), holding up the blue logo of ADT, a well-known home security company.

Chaffetz also sharply criticized the low-grade response apparently displayed after Army veteran Omar Gonzalez scaled the White House fence and raced across the lawn.

“If you project weakness, it invites attacks,” Chaffetz declared. “We need overwhelming force . . . not restraint.”

The Secret Service, added Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), needs a “21st century makeover.”

The bashing by lawmakers went beyond perceived failings in Piersons’s management of the agency. Lawmakers interpreted her cool, measured responses as evasive and defensive.

“I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation today,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.).

Pierson replied that the Secret Service does not “take any of these incidents lightly.”

“I don’t think you’re taking it seriously,’’ Lynch answered.

He then added: “I’m sorry. I hate to be critical, but we have a lot at stake here. I got to call it like it is. I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership.”

Pierson, who was appointed head of the Secret Service in March 2013, took over as it sought to rebound from a scandal over agents allegedly visiting prostitutes in Colombia while preparing for a presidential visit. Later, the agency faced criticism when one agent on assignment in the Netherlands was found passed out in a hotel hallway following a night of drinking.

On Sunday, the Post also described the failure of the Secret Service to recognize and promptly investigate a shooting incident in 2011 in which a gunman fired at least seven shots at the upstairs residence.

Pierson was peppered with questions about the gunfire even though it occurred before her time as director. At one point, she said one impediment to determining that shots had been fired was the fact that the attack occurred at night.

“Can you not hear at night?” yelled Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) quipped that perhaps agents could have deployed flashlights.

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