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Congress Weighs In on White House Breach

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

After an intruder managed to get inside the White House on Sept. 19, members of Congress are seeking answers from Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.  

The agency has indicated it is conducting a review following the arrest of Iraq war veteran Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas, who officials say climbed the north fence of the complex and bolted into the North Portico with a 3 1/2-inch serrated blade folding knife in his pocket. Technical and physical security, including staffing and threat assessment, will be assessed.  

Disturbing new details emerged when Gonzalez appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola in District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday. According to federal prosecutors, Gonzalez was keeping 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets and a machete in his car, parked blocks from the White House. Also revealed Monday was a July 19 incident in Virginia, when Gonzalez was arrested while carrying a sawed-off shotgun and map of Washington marking the location of the White House. “Friday’s security breach at the White House was alarming and unprecedented," House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. "I am confident Director Pierson is taking swift action to investigate the incident and increase security procedures to prevent this from occurring in the future."  

McCaul was scheduled to speak with Pierson on Monday. He said he looks forward to reviewing the results of the agency's investigation, "and will continue to work with the Secret Service to ensure they have all the tools they need to meet their critical security mission.”  

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., announced he will convene a Sept. 30 hearing to examine the latest concerns regarding Secret Service security protocols.  

Issa called the breach "the latest in a string of high profile incidents for the Secret Service," from party crasher-turned-political candidate Tareq Salahi to the prostitution scandal in Colombia. He invited Pierson to testify "about what steps the agency is taking under her leadership to improve security and put an end to dangerous embarrassments,” according to a statement.  

Congress could have a role to play if the Secret Service requests additional funding to increase staffing or, for instance, add additional specialized canine units to patrol the perimeter.  

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said in a statement he hopes the Secret Service uses the breach "as a learning opportunity to reduce the likelihood that something of this nature will happen again."  

"After speaking with Director Pierson, I am encouraged that she will do just that," Carper continued. "I look forward to learning more about the results of the Secret Service's review and what steps it will take to improve security measures moving forward."  

Republicans, including Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Peter T. King, R-N.Y., have suggested congressional oversight is necessary. Chaffetz blasted the Secret Service in the immediate wake of the breach, while King said during a Fox News appearance that he wants answers on what is being done to make sure it never happens again.  

Ideas for enhancing security, including modifying the fence, began floating almost immediately. There is precedent for reducing access. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Secret Service attempted to close the entire area around the White House to public access, including E Street to the South of the White House. It was reopened for a time, but closed after 9/11.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., is concerned that a hasty response to the incident could go too far in cracking down on public access to the trafficked destination. She wrote Pierson to say that if changes that alter public access at the White House prove necessary, then they “should be in line with current public access to the areas surrounding the White House and maintain the current views of this historic and national landmark.”  

“Before any action is taken, the first step must be to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the White House breach,” Norton said. “The next step is to recognize that the area in front of the White House, including Lafayette Park, is a First Amendment area, which must not be taken away from District of Columbia residents and the millions of other Americans who visit each year.”  

Norton backed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said on Monday that he has encouraged others "to not rush to judgment about the event and not second-guess the judgment of security officers who had only seconds to act, until all the facts are in."  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized during his Monday press briefing that securing the executive mansion, while keeping it open to thousands of tourists, is a complicated job.  

"The White House is, of course, a place of business," Earnest said. "It's essentially a large office building. It is where members of the White House staff and White House journalists show up every day to do their work and facilitating your entry and exits to this complex, with a minimum amount of inconvenience, while also providing security, is an important priority."  

President Barack Obama later praised the Secret Service when asked about the breach during an event in the Oval Office, saying he was "grateful for all the sacrifices they make on my behalf and on my family's behalf." Obama had departed the complex with his family prior to the intrusion and subsequent evacuation.  

According to the criminal complaint, once Gonzalez was apprehended he told Secret Service agents that he was “concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing” and needed to contact the president “so he could get word out to the people.” He also complained of chest pains after his arrest, and was transported to a nearby hospital for evaluation.  

Gonzalez faces charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds, while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  

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