Should the Secret Service have shot White House fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez to block a possible assassin from entering the Executive Mansion? Or did agents show commendable restraint by refraining from the use of deadly force against an individual found later to be mentally challenged?
That’s one key debate that emerged at the House Oversight Committee hearing Tuesday on US Secret Service protection of the White House grounds.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, chairman of the panel’s Subcommittee on National Security and Homeland Defense, got this topic rolling. Early in the hearing, he said he was dismayed by the Secret Service’s initial statement that agents who subdued Mr. Gonzalez after he breached the grounds on Sept.19 showed “tremendous restraint."
“Tremendous restraint is not what we’re looking for,” Chairman Chaffetz told Secret Service Director Julia Pierson at the hearing.
Instead, Chaffetz urged deterrence of future fence-jumpers through the use of force. It was clear from the context that he meant the use of firearms. He asked Director Pierson if agents at the White House were cleared to use lethal means against intruders. She said they were, within the bounds of the law.
“I want it to be crystal clear, you make a run and a dash for the White House, we’re going to take you down. I want overwhelming force,” Chaffetz then said.
Not all lawmakers agreed. The White House complex is a busy place, some pointed out. Reporters have a site outside the West Wing where they routinely do stand-up filming. Aides and visitors are constantly roaming across the grounds.
“I’m very reluctant to give that kind of advice to the Secret Service,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia.
“The White House is a busy and bustling place ... a shootout should be the last resort, not the first,” Representative Connolly added.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) of New Mexico agreed, adding that one recent previous fence-jumper was a toddler who slipped through the bars.
A shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach is “too far," said Representative Grisham.
That said, overall the House Oversight Hearing was remarkable in that, for once, the outrage was bipartisan.
Both Republicans and Democrats expressed anger and shock at the ease with which Gonzalez penetrated White House defenses. The Secret Service’s mistakes were particularly egregious, given the context of the threat, said some. President Obama receives three times as many threats against his life as his most recent predecessors.
Pierson was dry and unemotional as she attempted to parry rhetorical attacks, and that seemed to only make lawmakers angrier.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) of Massachusetts, at one point in the hearing.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California announced at the end of the hearing’s public session that he and the top Democrat on the panel, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, agreed that an internal Secret Service review of the Gonzalez fence-jumping incident would not be sufficient, in their view, and that they would work for some kind of independent study of the events leading up to the incursion.