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Secret Service Takes Beating in Rare Recess Hearing (Video)

secretservice 340 093014 440x289 Secret Service Takes Beating in Rare Recess Hearing
Cummings and Issa greet Pierson. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson took a beating from nearly 20 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lawmakers who traveled back to Washington for Tuesday’s rare, three-and-a-half hour recess hearing.

Droves of photographers packed into the panel’s Rayburn meeting room to capture Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., demanding succinct responses from Pierson about botched security and the Sept. 19 incident in which Iraq war veteran Omar J. Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and made it into the building.

“Ma’am, I want a short answer,” Issa challenged during the first round of questioning for the embattled director. “I have very little time. Was he in fact — the federal complaint said he was — he was in fact apprehended in one place. Isn’t it true he was apprehended further into the White House?”

Since Congress left town, startling details about the security breach have emerged from court and media accounts. Whistleblowers have come forward to criticize the agency’s handling of the incident and to speak out about muted alarms and agents who missed their target. Interrogation intrigue, props and outrage dominated the hearing, because Pierson and Congress agreed she couldn’t say much about Secret Service protocol in front of the media.

“The very last thing we want to do is give people like Gonzalez a road map for how to attack the president or other officials protected by the Secret Service,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member.

That didn’t stop Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. — a former federal prosecutor — from pressing Pierson for details of a 2011 White House shooting, asking her to rehash what a jury had learned about the case in light of new revelations in a Washington Post article.

One of the Republicans vying to replace Issa at the helm of the committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, also pumped Pierson for agency policy on use of force. Chaffetz, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees national security, was the first member of Congress to attack the Secret Service after the most recent breach, and he has been bashing the response ever since.

“We want to see overwhelming force,” Chaffetz said. “If a would-be intruder cannot be stopped by a dog or intercepted by a person, perhaps more lethal force is necessary.”

If agents have to kill someone to prevent them from getting close to the president, the first family or the White House, Chaffetz said he wants them to know, “I will have their back.”

Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., brought a prop for his brief stint in the chairman’s seat on Tuesday.

“Have you ever heard of these guys?” Mica asked, holding up the blue shield of ADT Security Systems. The congressman plugged ADT as a solution for the 2011 incident, when a window broken by a bullet went undiscovered for at least three days.

Though three witnesses were called before the committee, former Secret Service Director W. Ralph Basham and former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection Todd Keil spoke little after their opening statements.

Pierson took full responsibility for the most recent breach and said she had reviewed news statements issued by the agency in the wake of the incident that appear to conflict with the facts of the case. She said she did not think security plans were “properly executed,” and said the agency is conducting an internal review.

The Secret Service has apprehended 16 fence-jumpers in the past five years, Pierson said, including six this year alone. She indicated sequester cuts from Congress had posed staffing challenges to the agency, leaving them short 550 personnel.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., wanted to call attention to the point. She is concerned with securing the executive mansion, while making sure other Americans, including tourists and protesters, have access to the surrounding area. Few members were sympathetic to the staffing concerns.

“How many people have accompanied you to this hearing today, do you know?” asked Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who said the House sergeant-at-arms had received a request for 18 people to accompany Pierson to the hearing. DeSantis said the dozen who did accompany her ”kind of cuts against this idea that we’re at a manpower shortage, especially in some of the numbers that we’ve been doing.”

Democrats said they’ve lost faith in the agency under Pierson’s leadership. Critics included Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, one of two members who attended the recess hearing even though they aren’t on the panel.

Pierson also faced scrutiny for low morale at the agency, plus a wild line of questions from Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., about whether agents were using smartphones to play games or tweet while on duty. By the end of the hearing, members were suggesting discipline or firings at the agency.

“Director Pierson, let me be frank,” said freshman Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., one of the last to speak, “I believe that you have done a disservice to the president of the United States.”

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