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Secret Service Chief On White House Breach: It Won't Happen Again


This is one of those questions that is perfect for a Congressional hearing, though not so perfect for the witness. The question is how a man managed to get so far onto the White House grounds.


The Secret Service is being asked variations on that question today. Earlier this month, an army veteran climbed over the White House fence, and it turns out the intruder made it farther inside the White House than the Secret Service originally acknowledged. Secret Service director Julia Pierson is in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee right now. NPR's Brian Naylor joins us more with details. And Brian, I'm guessing lawmaker's are not happy with the Secret Service's recent performance. What are they saying?-

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Audie, there is a lot of anger and outrage being aimed at the Secret Service by members of the committee this morning. They're questioning the competence, the leadership, the veracity of the Secret Service. They're upset that this 42-year-old army veteran, Omar Gonzalez, was able to climb over the White House fence earlier this month, sprint 70 yards across the lawn and enter the building before being stopped. Here's what the committee chairman Darrell Issa of California said.


REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Inexplicably, Omar Gonzalez breached at least five rings of security on September 19. The White House is supposed to be one of America's most secure facilities and in fact, one of the world's most secure facilities, so how on Earth did it happen? This failure was once again tested - has tested the trust of the American people in the Secret Service.

NAYLOR: Lawmakers also wondered, Audie, what would have happened if it wasn't just one guy, but a group of terrorists who tried to climb over the fence at the same time. Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah questioned whether the Secret Service was too measured in its response.


REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: Tremendous restraint is not what we we're looking for. Tremendous restraint is not the only objective. It sends a very mixed message. The message should be overwhelming force. If one person can hop that wall - hop that fence - and run unimpeded all the way into an open door at the White House, don't praise them for - for tremendous restraint. That's not the goal, that's not what we're looking for.

NAYLOR: And I should say that this has been bipartisan criticism, that Democrats are equally upset with the Secret Service's performance. As Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said “this isn't a Republican or Democratic issue, it's an American issue and an issue of national security.

CORNISH: What's the response from the Secret Service chief, Julia Pierson?

NAYLOR: Yeah, well, basically she's saying the buck stops with her and it won't happen again. Here's a clip from her opening statement.


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.

NAYLOR: You know, interestingly, in several statements to reporters, Pierson and a Secret Service spokesman - even the White House spokesman - never admitted that Gonzalez got much farther than the White House than merely inside the front door, so that's a line of questioning that's still going on.

CORNISH: Brian, I think the question everyone has at this point actually is whether Julia Pierson's job is in jeopardy?

NAYLOR: Well, you know, President Obama appointed her last year as the first woman to head the agency, after reports that there had been agents engaging with prostitutes in Colombia, so she - her job is to change the ethics and culture, and so it'll be up to the president to remove her or not. Everyone - everything that they've been saying though is that he has confidence in her. We'll see if that confidence remains after today.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Brian, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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