Watch CBS News

Secret Service shortcomings have Congress demanding answers

Peter Baker, Michael Gerson, Kimberley Strassel, Ruth Marcus, and Michael Crowley discuss the recent security breach at the White House and whether the Secret Service needs more resources
Peter Baker, Michael Gerson, Kimberley Strass... 06:05

When Omar Gonzalez managed to scale the fence at the White House and run all the way inside the front doors of the building's columned entrance, members of Congress were so alarmed by the Secret Service's security lapse that they scheduled a hearing to grill the agency's director even though the House had already adjourned until after the midterm elections.

But new revelations reported by the Washington Post Sunday - that it took Secret Service agents four days to realize a man had fired bullets that struck the White House in 2011 - have raised fresh concern for lawmakers that will put the spotlight on the agency's director, Julia Pierson, when she comes to testify Tuesday.

"It had a chilling effect on me," the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, told CBS News.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, added that the new revelations are "going to heighten all of those concerns exponentially."

In the wake of last week's historic White Hou... 02:13
A new report in the Washington Post says Secr... 01:05

Members will be looking for a full accounting of what happened from Pierson, who was appointed by President Obama in March 2013. By then, the Secret Service had already suffered several high-profile problems during the Obama presidency, including a 2012 prostitution scandal involving a dozen agents protecting the president and an incident where a Northern Virginia couple was able to "crash" a 2009 state dinner at the White House.

But some members of Congress see the fence-jumper and the bungled shooting response as more alarming because they involved agents failing to respond quickly enough to an attack on the White House. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, told CBS News it goes to the "core of competency" of the men and women who protect the president.

The session is likely to turn into a larger discussion of the agency's recent problems than just an analysis of what went wrong when Gonzalez jumped the fence.

"I don't see people being held accountable and I don't see changes that make the security situation better, so part of [the hearing] is to discuss the perimeter at the White House but I think the problems are much deeper seated than that," committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told CBS News. "There are other incidents that we might talk about but we're also going to reach back during her tenure to review what has happened and not happened."

In the wake of an incident in which an armed ... 00:19

He suggested that other "intimate details" of security breaches might come out during the hearing that will leave the public "flabbergasted."

In addition to her public testimony, part of Pierson's appearance on Capitol Hill will involve a closed-door, classified session with lawmakers to discuss sensitive information. Both Issa and Chaffetz have said they want most of the session to be out in the open, though.

"She's going to claim that many of these things are classified and they can't be revealed but most of this information is public, it may be embarrassing, she may not like it, but it is something that can be discussed in public view," Chaffetz said.

Cummings acknowledged that it's a "difficult situation" as the committee tries to fulfill its oversight responsibilities.

"On the one hand I think we want to know what they have done, why these things happen...but on the other hand the Secret Service -- and rightfully so -- has said we don't want to disclose classified information or information if revealed could give any possible salience to people who wanted to do harm, give them ideas of what of their weaknesses are," he said.

But the members of the committee will be looking for both "an in-depth explanation" of what went wrong, in Connolly's words, and some self reflection from the agency.

Expressing criticism of the Secret Service's decision to erect a second fence in front of the White House several days after the jumping incident, Connolly said, "That can't be your first reaction. The first reaction has to be frankly some self-criticism."

That's a bipartisan view.

"Overreacting is not what we're looking to see now," Issa told CBS News, recalling the hours-long security lines for entrance to White House functions that began after the Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed the 2009 state dinner. "We want the reaction to be fix the failures within the Secret Service, not use this as an excuse to either dramatically increase the number of [personnel]...or the taking over large portions of Washington D.C."

Both Issa and Chaffetz noted that House Republicans voted to fund the Secret Service's operations at levels above what Mr. Obama requested in his 2014 budget. And Democrats don't seem like they will make a case that it wasn't enough.

Peter Baker, Michael Gerson, Kimberley Strass... 06:05

"The budget must never be an excuse when it comes to the life and safety of our president and the others that they are responsible for guarding," Cummings said.

It looks like Democrats and Republicans are poised to work together on the issue, despite the committee's history for bitter bipartisan battles over issues like the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya or the controversy over the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

"I think that you can get so caught up in the partisanship stuff that you get into the accusations and trying to grab headlines that you don't deal with the problems, the weaknesses, and the things that need to be addressed," Cummings said. "I'm hoping we leave our political hats at the door."

Even Issa, who describes himself as "one of the most outspoken critics of the president" says he does not see the Secret Service's shortcomings as an issue for which the president is to blame. He said he expects a "nonpartisan" approach from his committee Tuesday.

As for Pierson herself, her job seems to be safe - at least for now. But how she responds to lawmakers at the hearing could have a bearing on whether they lose confidence in her ability to do the job.

"She absolutely has to be given the chance to explain the circumstances and lay out what corrective measures she's taken and will take," Connolly said. "I certainly don't think its fair to decide to play judge, jury and executioner before we've even heard her out."

Issa said that it appears Pierson is "having trouble fixing a culture" within the agency but that he hasn't seen a failure to respond to problems that has made him doubt her suitability for the job.

"That is a question that I think the committee will work with for a period of time and see if she's capable of fixing [the] agency," he said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.