WASHINGTON (AP) — Under withering criticism from Congress, the director of the Secret Service on Tuesday admitted failures in her agency’s critical mission of protecting the president but repeatedly sidestepped key questions about how a knife-carrying intruder penetrated ring after ring of security before finally being tackled deep inside the White House.
Despite the extraordinary lapses in the Sept. 19 incident, Julia Pierson asserted: “The president is safe today.”
Hours later, reports emerged of yet another failure in Secret Service protocol, this time in President Barack Obama‘s presence.
On Sept. 16, an armed federal contractor rode on an elevator with Obama and his security detail while the president was visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Washington Examiner reported. The Washington Post reported similar details and added that the man had three convictions for assault and battery. The office of Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who has helped lead Congress’ investigation, said a whistleblower had provided him the same details.
The gun was discovered only because the contractor was questioned after he persisted in taking video of Obama on the elevator, the reports said. The contractor was immediately fired by his employers.
A Secret Service official confirmed the incident reported by the newspapers but declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation of the event.
Was Obama informed? It was unclear. But Pierson, under questioning at the hearing, said that she is the one who briefs Obama on threats to his personal security and that she had d briefed him only once this year, “for the Sept. 19 incident.”
At the Capitol, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike expressed the view that the Sept. 19 breach of White House security had blemished the storied agency, and several pressed for an independent inquiry into what went wrong. They were not assuaged by Pierson’s vow that “I’ll make sure that it does not happen again” or by the agency’s own investigation.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today,” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch told Pierson at a public hearing that was followed by a classified, closed-door briefing. Rep. Chaffetz said afterward: “The more I learn, the more it scares me.”
Calm but defensive in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Pierson disclosed that shortly before the intruder jumped the fence at least two of her uniformed officers recognized him from an earlier troubling encounter but did not approach him or report his presence to superiors.