Finally, an issue unites Democrats and Republicans: criticizing the Secret Service.
Fallout continued Tuesday from the failure of the agency charged with protecting the president to apprehend an intruder before he was deep into the White House.
“I wish to God you had protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation today,” Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch told Secret Service director Julia Pierson as she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, referencing Omar Gonzalez’s ability to make it into the Green Room of the White House Sept. 19 before being apprehended.
“This whole thing is the United States Secret Service versus one mentally challenged man,” he continued. “This is the Secret Service against one individual with mental illness, and you lost. You lost. And you had three shots at this guy, three chances, and he got to the Green Room in the White House.”
“What happens when you have a sophisticated organization with nefarious intent and resources going up against the Secret Service? What happens then?”
Pierson said the agency takes threats very seriously, and reiterated that she is conducting a review of the breach, which she said is never acceptable. But Lynch interrupted her. “As a casual observer to what has happened here, I don’t think the Secret Service is taking they’re duty to protect the American president and his family at the White House — I don’t think they’re taking it seriously,” he said.
“That’s exactly my point — based on the evidence and the series of lapses — unfortunately that’s the conclusion that I arrive at. That you’re not taking your job seriously.”
Members of the committee were unhappy the Washington Post had to correct the initial report from the Secret Service that Gonzalez was apprehended just inside the front door. They were also unhappy to learn about another incident from the Washington Post in 2011, when a man fired eight shots at the White House and was not apprehended until days later.
D.C. Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton expressed concern about the agencies ability to take on five or six simultaneous jumpers, when it failed to take on one. Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee couldn’t believe the officers were unable to successfully chase down Gonzalez on the White House lawn, and questioned their fitness level. Florida Republican Rep. John Mica pointedly referred the agency to ADT security systems, which can install systems to alert homeowners of broken windows.
Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz slammed the agency for issuing a statement following the breach praising the agents involved for exercising “tremendous restraint” and declared agents should not hesitate to use lethal force to protect the grounds. “The message should be overwhelming force,” he said, and added, “If you project weakness, it invites attacks. We want to see overwhelming force.”
“In this day and age of ISIL and terrorist and IEDs and dirty bombs, we don’t know what’s going on underneath that person’s clothing,” he continued. “If they want to penetrate that they need to know that they are perhaps going to be killed. That’s the message we should be sending — every single time.”
When Pierson later described the difficulty agents face in deciding when and whether to use force, and compared the process to what police officer’s face on a daily basis, Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins took issue with her defense, and expressed concern she’s sending mixed messages to her agents about whether to use restraint or force.
“You’re talking about officers who are protecting a national icon,” he said. “When they jump the fence, there should be an immediate understanding this person should not be here. And there should be an immediate understanding that there is not a restraint factor here.”
“This is not the nice, cuddly Secret Service that — you got on our property, let’s move you back off. I’m having trouble how you could correlate restraint and discretion in a traffic situation … with someone going after the resident’s home.”
Former Secret Service Director Ralph Basham was one of few people who defended the agency and Pierson. He reiterated the difficulty agents face in striking a balance between protecting the president and maintaining the openness and access the public desires.
“It is obviously critically important that [the White House] be kept safe,” he said. “But that security must be accomplished in a way that does not jeopardize the very values that we seek to protect and that these buildings themselves indeed symbolize.”
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