U.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson spent 3½ uncomfortable hours on Tuesday being grilled by lawmakers who were very, very displeased with last week’s White House security breach. “This failure has once again tested the trust of the American people in the Secret Service—a trust already strained by a string of recent scandals,” Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said early in the hearing, providing what would become a common refrain from both sides of the aisle. Proving this was far from a one-sided partisan attack, Democrat Rep. Stephen Lynch unleashed perhaps the most blistering one-liner, telling Pierson, “I wish to God that you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.”
Tuesday’s hearing was full of what can make Congress so frustrating to watch: political grandstanding, off-topic partisan bickering, the demanding of answers without giving witnesses the time to answer questions, and even pointless props. When Issa gaveled the hearing to a close in the early afternoon, it was unclear if the panel had made even the smallest headway toward preventing future security failures at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Still, for all the look-at-how-angry-I-am posturing and the long-winded soliloquies, the hearing was nonetheless a success. This was an example of lawmakers doing a job only they could do, not in spite of their desire for political theater but because of it.
On Sept. 19, Iraq War veteran Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and made it inside the residence. The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig reported on Tuesday that Gonzalez “made it much farther into the building than previously known, overpowering one Secret Service officer and running through much of the main floor.” He was finally corralled in the East Room after passing the stairs that lead to the White House’s living quarters.
At the hearing, Pierson began by taking “full responsibility” for her agents’ “unacceptable” failure to properly execute the established security plan. She then took significant care not to go much further than that. Pierson was somewhat limited in what she could discuss because much of the Secret Service’s protocol is (understandably) classified, but her desire to protect her agency and specific agents was evident in her long, monotone responses, which avoided the type of yes-or-no answers that lawmakers asked for when it came to simple questions of fact.
The closed-door briefing that was scheduled to follow likely proved significantly more informative for lawmakers. But the public hearing-turned-public scolding wasn’t just for show.
For starters, the hearing provided the much-needed official rebuke to the Secret Service that President Obama has been unable to deliver. This is an agency, after all, that is directly responsible for the safety of the president and his family at a time when he’s reportedly receiving three times the death threats of his predecessors. Obama, like any president, can’t run the risk of alienating the very agents he entrusts with his family’s lives. It’s no surprise then that the White House has treaded carefully despite what was by all accounts a serious and stunning security lapse. “The president and the first lady, like all parents, are concerned about the safety of their children,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said following the incident, “but the president and the first lady also have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to do a very important job.”
That tepid show of support aside, there are plenty of reasons why the president should be concerned—and not just because Gonzalez managed to break through five layers of security on his way into the White House, despite twice being questioned by Secret Service agents this summer. Prior to her Tuesday report, the Post’s Leonnig published a damning piece this past weekend that documented the agency’s lackluster response to a 2011 shooting at the White House, in which a man named Oscar Ortega-Hernandez unloaded more than a half-dozen rounds at the building while Sasha Obama was inside. The Secret Service initially shrugged off the gunfire as either a shootout between rival gangs or the backfiring of a car, this despite a bevy of evidence suggesting it was a deliberate attack on the White House.
While Gonzalez may have been the first fence-jumper to make it inside, he wasn’t the first intruder to crash the White House: Real Housewives of D.C. cast members Michaele and Tareq Salahi memorably managed to slip past security and into a state dinner in 2009. And the Secret Service’s embarrassments aren’t confined to American soil: There was the agency’s prostitution scandal in Colombia in 2012, and this spring’s drunken escapades in the Netherlands. If the president isn’t concerned, he should be.
It’s been at least as troubling that the Secret Service has provided scant and sometimes inaccurate information about its response to both the fence jumping and the 2011 shooting, the details of which were largely unknown until this weekend’s Washington Post exposé. In the immediate aftermath of the fence jumping, an agency spokesperson told the Associated Press that Gonzalez was unarmed when he was apprehended. An affidavit later filed by an agent, however, revealed that Gonzalez had a knife with a 3½-inch serrated blade. That affidavit also echoed what was at the time the official agency line that Gonzalez had been apprehended almost immediately after entering the White House through the North Portico doors, a story the Post’s reporting contradicted. The details of Gonzalez’s foray into the White House remained unconfirmed by the agency until lawmakers were able to pose the questions directly to Pierson in Tuesday’s hearing.
There’s an increasing amount of evidence, then, that suggests Pierson and her agency have attempted to mislead the American public. The director had plenty of opportunities to set the record straight on Tuesday, but nonetheless kept another crucial detail hidden. The agent who ultimately tackled Gonzalez wasn’t on duty at the time, but instead had ended his shift moments earlier after seeing Obama and his daughters depart for Camp David via helicopter. The only reason that detail is now public is thanks to the Post’s Leonnig, who reported it in a story that published as the hearing was wrapping up.
Pierson didn’t just evade questions from the House Oversight Committee. She also appears to have misled her interlocutors. Leonnig and the Washington Examiner broke yet another story on Tuesday, this time reporting that an armed security contractor with three prior convictions for assault and battery was allowed to ride in an elevator with the president during his Sept. 16 visit to Atlanta—a violation of Secret Service protocol that Obama was never informed of during his trip. Pierson told lawmakers that she briefs the president “100 percent of the time” when his personal security has been breached, saying that there’s been only one such breach this year: Gonzalez’s dash through the White House. According to Leonnig, meanwhile, Pierson “took steps to have the [Atlanta] matter reviewed internally and did not refer it to an investigative unit that reviews violations of protocol and standard.”
If it wasn’t for Leonnig, we wouldn’t know about many of the Secret Service’s failings and evasions. But without Tuesday’s public hearing, Pierson and her agency likely would have been able to continue to hide behind nuance and obfuscation. Instead, the Secret Service chief is now on the record, and that record—limited as it may be—is already causing her headaches. The hearing may have looked like the latest round of outrage-for-the-sake-of-outrage political theater, but in reality it was much more. Sometimes, we should be thankful for grandstanding politicians.