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Live updates: Hearing on White House security and the Secret Service

September 30, 2014

The head of the Secret Service will appear before a House oversight committee Tuesday morning to discuss security lapses involving the agency’s protection of the White House. This hearing comes a day after The Washington Post reported that a man who recently jumped the White House fence made it much farther into the building than the Secret Service had admitted. We’re bringing you live updates from the hearing.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

The public hearing has concluded, so everyone involved is shifting to a closed session now.

But the public session — lasting for about three and a half hours — provided a look at the problems currently facing the embattled Secret Service. Julia Pierson, the agency’s director, has promised a full review of everything from what happened when an intruder made it into the fence to the way agents can use force. She vowed that this will not happen again. 

At the same time, the members of the House oversight committee repeatedly hammered at the same questions: How could this happen, what was being done to prevent it from happening again and why should the public have any trust in the agency? And it is unclear if the answers Pierson provided will be enough in the face of calls for an independent review.

In any event, we are winding down our live updates. Head here for our latest story on the hearing.

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was pressed on how often she personally briefs the president on security breaches. She said 100 percent of the time she would alert him.

Then Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked her how many times she has briefed President Obama about his personal security in 2014.

Just once, she said.

Earlier in the hearing, Pierson said there have been six different incidents this year of people jumping the White House fence.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

Even as the hearing into the White House breach continues, The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig has revealed a new detail about what happened that day: The man who jumped over the White House fence and made it into the building was ultimately tackled by an off-duty Secret Service agent who coincidentally happened to be walking through the house at that time.

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Were the Secret Service agents who were slow to catch the White House fence jumper possibly distracted by their personal smartphones?

Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) asked Director Julia Pierson if officers are allowed to use their personal phones while on duty.

“No, they would not be,” she said.

But then Long asked again and Pierson was less certain that the agents don’t use their personal phones at work.

“It’s possible they have it, but they are discouraged from using,” she said.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

This hearing is taking place in the aftermath of a rather startling security breach, which itself occurred after other missteps (most notably, a 2011 incident involving someone shooting at the White House and the Secret Service not realizing this fact for several days).

So, naturally, the hearing has turned to the most pressing issue of the day: Hey, has the Secret Service thought about ADT, the security company that serves homes and businesses?

  • Josh Hicks
  • ·

Secret Service chief Julia Pierson deflected blame for the recent White House breach as she summarized steps she has taken to turn around the agency since she took over after its prostitution scandal.

The director said she considers the breach to be a “strict tactical concern,” adding that “I agree that mistakes were made and proper protocols were not followed.”

Discussing her efforts to fix the Secret Service’s past problems, she said she has emphasized professionalism and accountability, established an office of integrity and taken steps to ensure that misconduct penalties are transparent and consistent.

“I personally have a zero tolerance level when it comes to misconduct,” Pierson said.

She also said she has filled vacant supervisory positions and ordered more training for Secret Service employees and leadership.

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said all the background information that was known about Omar Gonzalez, the man who managed to jump the fence and run deep inside the White House, should have been a red flag for the Secret Service.

“He was just about wearing a hat saying, ‘I’m the most dangerous person who could come to the White House,’” Cartwright said.

The congressman then asked Secret Service Director Julia Pierson if established protocols were followed that day.

“No, they were not,” she said.

“Why?” Cartwright asked.

“I do not know, and that will be main issue I hope to resolve during the investigation,” she said.

Cartwright noted that with Obama being the most threatened president, it’s “kinda a bad time to have something like this happen.”

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

Pierson has repeatedly agreed with the congressional questioners that there were problems with what happened on Sept. 19. She has also repeatedly stressed that this is why she has ordered a review, to figure out why this happened.

“I agree that mistakes were made and that the proper protocols were not followed,” Pierson said.

The officers working on Sept. 19 failed to do what they should have done, she said. But she also said she thinks the agency should review its training and staffing.

  • Josh Hicks
  • ·

Republicans continue to challenge the notion that sequestration affected the Secret Service’s ability to do its job, saying the agency’s own 2013 budget request called for a staff reduction of more than 300 employees.

Earlier in the hearing, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson had said the agency is 550 employees below its optimal level.

“I’m confused,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), referring to the 2013 request for a reduction. “Wouldn’t you be confused?”

Pierson did not answer.

Meadows also asked Pierson why the Secret Service had recommended lowering the agency’s average experience level by five years, apparently to reduce payroll expenses.

“I do know we have provided a human capital strategy to Congress at their request,” Pierson said.

“But these are your requests,” Meadows interjected.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

The White House fence jumper made it far into the actual building, as it now turns out. President Obama and his family were not in the building at the time. But this raises a rather obvious question: Had they been inside, was there a threat to them?

Pierson, the head of the Secret Service, acknowledged that this was a clear threat.

“Yes, I think Mr. Gonzalez coming into the main floor mansion is a threat,” she said.

She said that the Secret Service is outraged by what happened.

“It’s obvious,” she said. “It is obvious that mistakes were made.”

She said that is why she has called for a full review, one that can determine what mistakes happened and what can be done going forward.

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) lectured Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, telling her he has “low confidence” in her agency’s ability to protect the president.

“I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation today,” he said to her.

Pierson said the Secret Service doesn’t “take any of these incidents lightly.”

Lynch said that’s the problem, that he doesn’t believe that’s true.

“I don’t think you’re taking it seriously, based on the evidence my confidence in you protecting the president at the White House — it’s supposed to be one of the most protected buildings in the world … that’s the conclusion I arrive at,” he said. “I’m sorry, I hate to be critical, but we have a lot at stake here. I gotta call it like it is. I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership.”

Also:

  • Josh Hicks
  • ·

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Congress “has to take some responsibility” for the White House security problems, adding that the government-wide budget cuts known as sequestration seem to have left the Secret Service depleted.

Norton asked Secret Service Director Julia Pierson about staffing levels at the agency, and inquired about whether agents have been shifted to the White House detail without being familiar with protocols there. Pierson said the agency is “550 employees below our optimal level,” and she acknowledged that agents are sometimes shifted from their usual details.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) later challenged Norton’s comments. Pressing Pierson on the matter of budget cuts, he said: “You’re not going to tell us that sequestration is the reason your agents did not find evidence” of the 2011 White House shooting.

“No I am not,” Pierson replied.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) asked about the previous red flags raised by Gonzalez being near the White House with a weapon and also being caught in Virginia with weapons and a map leading to the White House.

Pierson said that the Secret Service has to deal with quite a few people who come to the agency’s attention each year. But dealing with mentally ill people who threaten the president is particularly challenging, she said.

Gonzalez, during his previous interactions with the Secret Service, had been cooperative, Pierson said.

She also confirmed that two agents recognized Gonzalez on Sept. 19, the day he made it into the White House, but did not confront him.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said budget sequestration resulted in the agency cutting staff by 550 employees.

But Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) angrily asked her if she was going to blame the security lapses on the budget cuts.

“No I am not,” she said.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) listed the path taken by Gonzalez when he made it into the White House, and bluntly asked: Can Secret Service officers use lethal force?

“Those officers do have the authority to use independent judgment to leverage lethal force when appropriate,” Pierson said. “That is always true. They are law enforcement officers.”

She said these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis by the officers. Chaffetz pressed on when officers can and can’t use lethal force, pointing out that Gonzalez or someone else who jumps the White House fence could have an improvised explosive. He asked about what agents know regarding when they can use force.

“I do want our officers and agents to execute appropriate force for anyone looking to breach or enter the White House,” she said.

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) tweeted this from inside the committee room:

In his prepared opening statement, Connolly wrote, “Now is not the time for obfuscation, excuses, or silence. Internal leaks from within the Secret Service necessitate clear and transparent communication beyond “we do not comment on security operations.”

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

  • Colby Itkowitz
  • ·

It didn’t take long for Chairman Darrell Issa to get very frustrated with Secret Service director Julia Pierson for not directly answering his questions about the security lapses. Issa wanted Pierson to corroborate or refute the Washington Post accounts of the 2011 shooting at the White House and the details of how the fence jumper ran through the East Wing.

“The answer is where are the inconsistencies (in the stories) that we know from the Washington Post?” Issa said. “Where are they not correct?”

She did not offer any examples.

  • Mark Berman
  • ·

Pierson confirmed Tuesday that Gonzalez was ultimately apprehended just inside the Green Room of the White House. This information, which was first reported Monday by The Post, obviously differs from the initial Secret Service contention that Gonzalez was captured inside the front doors.

Issa pressed Pierson on the differences between the Secret Service’s initial report and the newer information about how far Gonzalez made it into the building. He also asked about the 2011 incident involving shots fired at the White House, which saw the Secret Service fumble its response to the shooting and the aftermath.

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