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Secret Service's Julia Pierson: White House breach unacceptable

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said called the Sept. 19 failure of Secret Service security at the White House "not acceptable."

A knife-wielding man runs loose inside the White House; seven bullets pierce the walls of the first family’s residence; and the head of the Secret Service, an agency now exposed for failing in its duties, simply characterized the incident as “unacceptable.”  

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said Tuesday it was "not acceptable" that the knife-wielding man was able to breach Secret Security security at the White House on Sept. 19 and run deep inside the building before being stopped. Testifying at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee, Pierson promised to launch a full investigation into the incident and a comprehensive review of the agency's policies and procedures.

"It's clear that our security plan was not properly executed," Pierson said. "I take full responsibility, and I will ensure it will not happen again."

Pierson added that she intends to stay on as director of the agency.

Oversight Committee members of both parties had strong words for the Secret Service's handling of the incident at the top of the hearing.

Oversight Committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) ran through a litany of low moments for the Secret Service, from Bravo reality television stars crashing a White House party to Secret Service agents getting drunk in the Netherlands. He also raised the specter of a terrorist attack on the White House. “The next attempt to take the White House might not be a crazed, solo veteran,” he said. 

Ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Ga.) said the Secret Service remains "a high-profile job, but it is critically important and it requires accountability, so the spotlight is rightly on their actions today."

Issa, Cummings and committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pressed Pierson on the culture of the Secret Service in light of reports that whistleblowers had approached the Oversight Committee over concerns about the agency.

"My major concern goes to the culture. It is disturbing that Secret Service agents in the most elite protective agency in the world feel more comfortable coming to a member of this committee and telling them things than going to you," Cummings said, referring to a 2011 incident in which bullets hit the White House.

On Sept. 19, 2014, Omar Gonzalez allegedly entered the White House's executive mansion and managed to run all the way to the East Room, overpowering a guard on his way, The Washington Post first reported. The official account of the incident shortly after it occurred did not mention how close Gonzalez had gotten to the Obama family residence or the attack on the guard.

The Post report also found that an alarm at the checkpoint where Gonzalez entered the building had been muted. A pair of Washington Post reports Tuesday shed more unflattering light on the agency. Gonzalez was finally tackled not by one of the agents working that day, but by an off-duty Secret Service agent on his way out of the building, the paper reported. Later, another scoop said that an armed security contractor with three assault convictions was allowed on an elevator with Obama in Atlanta on Sept. 16.

Pierson at the hearing addressed the context of the breach.

"I recognize that these events did not occur in a vacuum," she said. "The Secret Service has had its share of challenges in recent years -- some during my tenure and some before -- of which this is the most recent. I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform, the important individuals we protect, and the American people we serve," she said.

Pierson faced tough questions over revelations in The Washington Post other White House security lapses.

Gonzales before he was apprehended Sept. 19 had been stopped this summer with multiple guns and a map of the White House, as well as 800 rounds of ammunition. He was also found with a hatchet outside the White House on Aug. 25.

Pierson told the committee that Secret Service agents were unable to take Gonzalez into custody in August because it was found he did not violate any laws.

The Post also uncovered information about a 2011 shooting aimed at the White House the Secret Service did not properly investigate.