US & Canada

Secret Service: White House security plan 'failed'

.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson takes her seat to testify at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "White House Perimeter Breach: New Concerns about the Secret Service" on Capitol Hill in Washington September 30, 2014. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Secret Service director promised such an incident would "never happen again"

The director of the US Secret Service says its security plan was "not properly executed" when a man broke into the White House this month, a lapse she said would never be repeated.

At a House oversight committee hearing, Julia Pierson took responsibility for the "unacceptable" 19 September breach.

Omar Gonzalez, 42, scaled a fence, ran across the lawn, entered an unlocked door and was tackled inside.

It was the latest in a series of embarrassments for the elite agency.

Mr Gonzalez made it well into the first floor of the White House, having pushed his way past a guard standing just inside the unlocked door of the North Portico.

He was tackled in the East Room, a long, ornately decorated chamber used for presidential addresses and formal receptions.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The East Room is used for many functions, some hosted by the president

"It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly," said Ms Pierson in testimony at the House Oversight committee hearing, where lawmakers of both parties expressed anger at a number of recent lapses by agency personnel and incidents of agents' misbehaviour.

"I take full responsibility; what happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again."

While acknowledging the recent failure, Ms Pierson, who was named director in March 2013, said the agency's "emergency action plans" were "multifaceted and tailored to each threat".

She said that agents and uniformed officers had apprehended 16 people who had jumped over the White House fence over the past five years, including six in 2014 alone.

At the scene - Tara McKelvey, BBC News

Julia Pierson, the director of the Secret Service, walked slowly down an aisle in a hearing room on Capitol Hill. Her expression was grim.

She sat at a table that faced the chairman and placed several sheets of paper on the table.

More than 20 photographers and cameramen stood in front of her. The room was silent except for the sounds of their equipment, and it looked uncomfortably like an ambush.

Someone called out, "Everybody down." The photographers sat on the carpeted floor, and the chairman began reading off a long list of security lapses and failures of the Secret Service.

Ms Pierson said she had ordered a full review of White House security procedures and said "all decisions made that evening are being evaluated, including decisions on tactics and use of force".

Committee chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said the White House complex was supposed to be one of the most secure places in the world but the breach had exposed serious problems in the protective agency.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Omar Gonzalez with wife Samantha, in an undated photo

"The system broke down on September 19 as it did when the Salahis crashed a state dinner in November 2009, or when Oscar Ortega-Hernandez successfully shot at the White House on November 2011, or when agents engaged in prostitution in Cartagena in April 2012, or when agents showed terrible judgment and got drunk in the Netherlands in March 2014," he said, referring to previous, well publicised breaches at the White House and scandals involving Secret Service agents.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, criticised the Secret Service leadership for praising its officers' "tremendous restraint" during the 19 September incident.

"Tremendous restraint is not what we're looking for… the message should be overwhelming force," Mr Chaffetz said. "I want the Secret Service to know... if they have to take action that is lethal, I will have their back.

"Don't let someone get close to the president, don't let somebody get close to his family, don't let them get in the White House, ever."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Omar Gonzalez was able to enter the White House through the North Portico doors

Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia, said the issues facing the agency were not a "mere question of personnel" and called for a "21st Century makeover" of the agency.

And the panel's senior Democrat Elijah Cummings said he hated "to even imagine what could have happened if Gonzalez had been carrying a gun instead of a knife when he burst inside the White House".

Previously stopped

Mr Obama and his family were not at the White House when the latest intrusion happened, having departed about 10 minutes earlier by helicopter.

Mr Gonzalez was indicted on federal and local charges on Tuesday, including unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon and unlawful possession of ammunition.

He was already known to authorities, having been stopped in Virginia in July. Then, officers found two powerful rifles, four handguns and other firearms and ammunition in his vehicle along with a map marking the White House.

And the Associated Press news agency has reported Secret Service agents interviewed Mr Gonzalez twice during the summer but concluded he was not a security threat.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A new barrier was erected following the security breach

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