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Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he is concerned about the leadership of the Secret Service in the wake of several security lapses including the recent White House fence jumper who entered the executive mansion and argues that action needs to be taken to restore confidence in the presidential-protection service.
In the first congressional hearing investigating the White House intruder, Chaffetz said he was dismayed by the Secret Service's first statement praising the "tremendous restraint" of the officers who were able to subdue Omar Gonzalez without lethal force. Gonzalez, who was carrying a three-inch serrated knife, scaled the White House fence Sept. 19 and entered the mansion before he was tackled by officers in the main hallway.
"Tremendous restraint is not what we're looking for," Chaffetz told Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. "Don't praise them for tremendous restraint. That's not the goal."
Tuesday's hearing, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was called to look at what Secret Service failures allowed Gonzalez to blow through five rings of security around the White House as well as the circumstances that took several days for the service to discover that several bullets had struck the residence in November 2011.
Chaffetz questioned Pierson on whether agents had the authority to shoot anyone who posed an immediate danger to the White House or the president; Pierson said the officers have the authority to use extreme force when appropriate.
"I want it to be crystal clear," Chaffetz said, "you make a run or a dash at the White House, we're going to take you down."
Pierson testified that it was clear the service's security plan regarding a fence jumper was "not executed properly," and it is currently under review. The service also has installed a temporary fence outside the executive mansion's perimeter.
"I take full responsibility," Pierson said. "What happened is unacceptable, and it will never happen again."
Under questioning, Pierson said that budget trims have cut into the ability to protect the White House. "We are more than 550 people below our optimal level," she said.
Ralph Basham, a former director of the Secret Service, defended the agency, saying it doesn't fear or discourage self-examination and welcomes performance-enhancing changes.
Perspective, Basham noted, is critically important.
"We could easily be sitting here today discussing why an Iraq war veteran, possibly suffering through the awful curse of post-traumatic stress disorder, was shot dead on the north lawn," Basham said. The ex-director said his confidence in the service remains "extremely high."
A former special agent with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, Todd Keil, told the committee that the Secret Service would benefit from expanding use of new and emerging technologies.
"Throughout my career, I have found that government agencies and private-sector organizations, who are at the top of their game, become complacent," Keil said. "Time tends to unknowingly erode and blunt the pointy end of the spear, and organizations and their management teams rely on, 'This is the way we have always done it' or 'We know how to do this best,' so they are unwilling or unable to change."
Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., noted in opening Tuesday's hearing that the country has placed a great deal of trust in the Secret Service and its mistakes are unsettling. Issa added that the Secret Service "was" always considered to be the elite law enforcement agency.