When Julia Pierson took over at the Secret Service last spring, things were going to change.
The agents of the elite agency tasked with protecting the president of the United States would no longer drunkenly argue with prostitutes in hotel rooms during international summits. The Secret Service's male-dominated culture would be reimagined, and its lax approach to security flaws would be tightened.
But more than a year after Pierson, who's worked for the Secret Service for three decades, took over, the agency is in deeper trouble than ever. Less than two weeks ago, a man armed with a small knife hopped over the White House fence, burst through the executive mansion, and sprinted into the East Room—and Pierson's officers failed to stop him until right then.
At an emergency hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday, Pierson admitted the security breach wasn't handled the way it should have been.
"It's clear our security plan was not properly executed," she told the committee. "This is unacceptable, and I take full responsibility and make sure it does not happen again."
The Secret Service is reviewing its security protocols, she said, "to ensure it will not happen again."
After the incident, the Secret Service said that the man, Omar Gonzalez, a 42-year-old Iraq war veteran from Texas, was apprehended by officers immediately after opening the north portico doors, which were unlocked. But The Washington Post, citing anonymous officials familiar with the incident, reported on Monday that Gonzalez made it much farther inside. On Tuesday, Pierson described what happened inside those doors:
As Mr. Gonzalez entered the door, he knocked back the officer that was standing at the doorway. the officer then engaged Mr. Gonzalez. They crossed the east entrance hall to the other. Made the left turn down the cross hall. They stepped momentarily into the East Room. Another officer rendered aid and he was placed on the ground, on the carpet and handcuffed on the cross hall just outside of the green room.
The incident has rattled people across the country. It's also found common ground in both parties. "This, ladies and gentlemen, is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee. "This is an American issue."
President Obama was "obviously concerned" about what happened, but said he has full confidence in the Secret Service.
"The White House is supposed to be one of America's most secure facilities, and in fact, one of the world's most secure facilities," committee Chairman Darrell Issa said at the start of hearing. "So how on earth did it happen?"