Focus of House hearing: 'What's wrong with Secret Service?'

Ahead of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson appearing Tuesday before a House committee, new reports indicate that the recent White House intruder made it deep into the Executive Mansion before being apprehended.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secret Service Director Julia Pierson takes her seat to testify at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on 'White House Perimeter Breach: New Concerns about the Secret Service' on Capitol Hill in Washington September 30, 2014.

What’s wrong with the Secret Service? That’s going to be the point of most of the questions that lawmakers ask Secret Service Director Julia Pierson Tuesday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Ms. Pierson’s almost certain to spend most of the hearing on the defensive. New reports indicate that White House intruder Omar Gonzalez made it deep into the Executive Mansion before being apprehended – and that the Secret Service may have misled the public about how serious the incident was.

It’s possible that Pierson, a 30-year Secret Service veteran who has run the agency for about 18 months, will lose her job over the latest revelations. President Obama has said he stands behind her, but the fence-jumping scandal comes on the heels of a number of other problems, including agents consorting with prostitutes while on foreign assignments, that have shaken a once-proud protection force.

“In recent years, security mishaps and personnel misconduct has dulled some of the luster the Secret Service once enjoyed as an elite agency,” tweeted veteran CBS White House reporter Mark Knoller Tuesday morning.

Monday’s Washington Post report that intruder Gonzalez made it all the way through the ceremonial East Room, almost to the back of the White House, before being tackled will only add to fireworks at the House hearing.

Such a security breach may be unprecedented in modern times. At the very least it calls Secret Service procedures into question, as Gonzalez made it past a guard at the front door before being subdued. An alarm box at the door meant to signal the presence of a security breach was disarmed because of a request from the White House usher's office, according to the Post account.

That said, intruders have eluded guards at the White House in the past, though they haven’t penetrated deep into the building itself. That’s a point left unmentioned in much of the commentary on the most recent incident.

In December 1975, a Washington resident named Gerald Gainous climbed undetected over the White House fence and roamed the grounds for an hour and a half, from about 8 to 9:30 p.m. He was apprehended after approaching then-President Ford’s daughter Susan, who was unloading camera equipment from a car near the South Portico, according to a 1995 public report on White House security.

Contemporary news reports indicate that Mr. Gainous was a habitual fence-jumper who leaped the barrier four times in the mid-1970s.

In 1991, a Swedish citizen named Gustav Leijohhufved got over the fence and made it to a guard post outside the West Wing before being caught, according to the White House security review.

“In recent history, it has been a common occurrence for intruders to scale the fence around the White House Complex and enter the grounds. Most of these ‘fence jumpers’ have been pranksters, peaceful protestors, and harmless, mentally ill individuals,” the 1995 review concluded.

That said, fence jumping can end in tragedy. In 1976, a D.C. taxi driver named Chester Plummer was shot to death by a Secret Service agent after he hopped the barrier and, carrying a metal pipe, advanced toward the White House and refused to stop.

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