Another Secret Service Breach Put Armed Man With Criminal Record In Elevator With Obama
The security lapses at the Secret Service just continue to mount.
Just a day after revelations that the man who jumped the White House fence a week ago made it further into the building than initially reported, The Washington Post is now reporting that another security breach this month put an armed man with a criminal record on an elevator with the President during a visit to Atlanta:
A security contractor with a gun and three prior convictions for assault and battery was allowed on an elevator with President Obama during a Sept. 16 trip to Atlanta, violating Secret Service protocols, according to three people with familiarity of the incident.
The incident occurred as Obama appeared at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis.
The contractor did not comply when Secret Service agents asked him to stop using a phone camera to videotape the president in the elevator, according to the people familiar with the incident.
Agents questioned him, and used a database check to learn of his criminal history.
When a supervisor from the private security firm approached and learned of the agents’ concern, the contractor was fired on the spot and agreed to turn over his gun — surprising agents, who had not realized he was armed during his encounter with Obama.Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said he was appalled when whistleblowers came forward to him with this account. The Washington Post confirmed details of the event with other people familiar with the review.
“You have a convicted felon within arms reach of the president and they never did a background check,” Chaffetz said. “Words aren’t strong enough for the outrage I feel for the safety of the President and his family. ”
He added: “His life was in danger. This country would be a different world today if he had pulled out his gun.”
Ordinarily, of course, someone with a criminal record, no less someone who is armed, is not supposed to get anywhere near the President, and certainly not in the same elevator. Even with the agents that were protecting him at the time, Congressman Chaffetz is no doubt correct that something truly horrible could have happened that day if this person had had nefarious intentions. Perhaps even more disturbing, though, is the fact that the agents charged with protecting the President on his visit to the CDC were not aware that this contractor was armed at the time he was near the President. That strikes me as being the very definition of a security breach that raises yet more questions about what exactly is going on with the Secret Service these days.
These revelations came on the same day that the head of the agency, along with other officials, was testifying before Congress in a hearing that drew ire and sharp questioning from both Republicans and Democrats:
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday assailed Julia Pierson, the director of the Secret Service, about security breaches at the White House, including an intruder who earlier this month breached multiple security measures and evaded capture as he ran around the first floor of the mansion.
Ms. Pierson said in opening statements before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that she took full responsibility for the breaches and she pledged that “what happened is unacceptable and it will never happen again.” But her promise of a comprehensive review of the incidents appeared to do little to satisfy members of the committee.
Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, lashed into Ms. Pierson, saying that he did not believe the Secret Service takes seriously its duty to protect the president. He said he had “very low confidence” in her leadership.
“I wish to God that you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation right now,” Mr. Lynch said.
Throughout the first several hours of the hearing, Ms. Pierson spoke mostly in a steady monotone, exhibiting little emotion as lawmakers questioned her leadership and criticized the performance of her agency. At times, the 30-year veteran of the Secret Service appeared flustered as lawmakers pressed her for short, quick answers.
Ms. Pierson repeatedly acknowledged that “mistakes were made,” a phrase that failed to capture the anger and frustration of many of the lawmakers. Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, told Ms. Pierson that he did not “get a sense of outrage” from her about what happened.
She responded, “We all are outraged.”
Several members severely criticized the agency for its response on Sept. 19, when Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, made his way deep inside the president’s residence, armed with a serrated knife. Under intense and sometimes combative questioning, Ms. Pierson said, “I do not think the security plan was properly executed.”
Lawmakers at the hearing also accused Ms. Pierson and other officials at the Secret Service of misleading Congress and the public about how far inside the White House Mr. Gonzalez got before being captured. Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, demanded to know why Secret Service officials had told reporters that Mr. Gonzalez was stopped just inside the front doors of the mansion.
Ms. Pierson said that she had read the agency’s news release before it went out on Sept. 20, but that she could not speak for conversations she was not a part of.
In response to repeated questions about the recent intrusion, Ms. Pierson offered new details about the moments before Mr. Gonzalez was finally captured. She said he made his way through the unlocked front doors, “knocked back” an agent inside the building, and then continued through the Entrance Hall, turned left into the Cross Hall, got a few steps inside the East Room, and was finally tackled back in the Cross Hall, just outside the Green Room.
Under early, sharp questioning from Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the committee, Ms. Pierson said that an outer glass door at the North Portico remained unlocked after the intruder breached the fence and that an inner, wooden door was in the process of being hand-locked when the intruder came through the doors. The intruder knocked the officer back and proceeded down the hallway, she said.
Ms. Pierson said the Secret Service had since installed an automatic lock on the door, which drew a tongue-in-cheek response from Mr. Issa.
“We learn from our mistakes,” he said.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic delegate from the District of Columbia, called for a “top-to-bottom investigation” into the most recent incident at the White House, but she said Ms. Pierson’s continued tenure at the agency was just one issue.
“I do not regard this matter as a mere issue of personnel,” Ms. Holmes Norton said. “I think it goes far deeper than that.”
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said the intruder incident raised questions about the “competence and culture” of the Secret Service. He said Ms. Pierson must be more forthcoming about answering the questions.
“I hate 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,” Mr. Cummings said. “That possibility is extremely unsettling.”
The Committee also questioned Pierson and the other witnesses about the 2011 incident in which a man fired shots at the White House from Constitution Avenue, something that the Secret Service didn’t confirm until several days later despite the fact that both of the President’s children were either in the building or arriving when it occurred. With regard to that incident, Pierson said that the matter hand been referred to the agency’s internal affairs division in the wake of a scathing internal report on the matter. Throughout questioning on that topic, though, she didn’t seem to be able to provide a cogent explanation for how it came to be that the fact that the White House had been hit by multiple bullets on November 11, 2011 and that this fact didn’t come to light until broken glass was found by housekeepers cleaning the area near the Truman Balcony. There was also much criticism of the manner in which the agency handled previous encounters with Omar Gonzalez, the man who was apprehended in the East Room earlier this month, including one in which rifles with telescopic sights and a map of Washington D.C. were found in his car. Instead of charging him, or placing him under enhanced scrutiny, the agency apparently just let Gonzalez go with no further obvious action. Until, of course, they apprehended him in the White House.
It’s hard to know for sure exactly what’s going on with the Secret Service, but it’s obvious that there’s something going wrong. In just the last several years, we’ve seen two gate crashers make it into a State Dinner without an invitation or having been cleared by the agency in advance, a number of agents involved in encounters with prostitutes in Colombia, and apparently, at least one incident in which an agent who was supposed to be on duty outside of the President’s hotel room on a trip falling asleep on the job, Add into that the numerous fence jumpers that we have had just in the past year, all of which have been apprehended before getting anywhere close to the building until Mr. Gonzalez, and it’s beginning to look like a serious lapse in security by an agency that is supposed to be the best trained security team in the world. There have been some suggestions that the agency has experienced budgetary issues in recent years, but the only apparent impact that has had has been to delay the start of a couple groups of academy candidates; there’s been no real suggestion that it has any impact on training or readiness of agents that are on duty. Another suggestion is that the culture of the agency has changed since it was moved from the Treasury Department, where it had been since its founding, to the Department of Homeland Security. One problem with that hypothesis, though, is that the transfer of authority happened in 2003 and its only been in the last four years or so that these security lapses have become apparent. It’s possible, of course, that there were incidents before 2010 that we’re not aware of, but right now it doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence that DHS supervision is impacting the agency. All of that suggests, then, that this may well be a failure of leadership and that people like Pierson may need to go and be replaced with people better able to lead the agency. Whatever the reason, though, this is obviously something we ought to get to the bottom of to sooner rather than later.’
Update 11/1/2014: Subsequent reporting from The Washington Post now indicates that the person who was on the elevator did not have a criminal record. He was, however, apparently not authorized to be on the elevator or in the immediate presence of the President.