WASHINGTON >> The intruder who climbed a fence made it farther inside the White House than the Secret Service has publicly acknowledged, a Republican congressman said Monday. The disclosures came on the eve of a congressional oversight hearing with the director of the embattled agency assigned to protect the president’s life.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs a House subcommittee on national security oversight, said whistleblowers had informed his panel that Omar J. Gonzalez had made it far beyond the front doors of the White House, despite what the Secret Service had said in the hours after the incident. Chaffetz criticized the Secret Service and its leadership for not doing more to stop the suspect earlier.
“I have deep concerns that the president is not as safe as we want and need him to be,” Chaffetz said on CNN.
In the hours after the Sept. 19 fence-jumper incident, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told The Associated Press that the suspect had been apprehended just inside the North Portico doors of the White House. The Secret Service also said that night that the suspect had been unarmed — an assertion that was revealed to be false the next day when officials acknowledged Gonzalez had a knife with him when he was apprehended.
When Senate Judiciary Committee staffers were briefed about the investigation by the administration a week after the incident, they were never told that Gonzalez had made it deep into the building, said a congressional official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the investigation and requested anonymity. The official said the committee later was told that the suspect had, indeed, made it far beyond the front door.
Citing multiple unnamed sources, The Washington Post reported that Gonzalez ran past the guard at the front door and into the East Room, which is about halfway across the first floor of the building. Gonzalez was eventually “tackled” by a counter-assault agent, the Post said.
Getting so far would have required Gonzalez to dash through the main entrance hall, turn a corner, then run through the center hallway half-way across the first floor of the building, which spans 168 feet in total, according to the White House Historical Association.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was scheduled to testify before a House committee on Tuesday for the first time since the incident. The new details about this far more significant breach were expected to dominate the lawmakers’ inquiries.
A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment on the latest details because of the ongoing investigation.
It was a security lapse that could have had serious consequences, if the intruder had been heavily armed and if the president and his family had been home. No one was hurt in the incident, but it’s not the first involving the White House itself, raising the question whether the latest breach is part of a pattern of delayed reactions to threats to the executive mansion. The Secret Service says that is not the case. And President Barack Obama has confidence in the Secret Service to do its job.
The Post reported over the weekend that the Secret Service did not immediately respond to shots fired at the White House in 2011, amid what the agency describes as uncertainty about where the shots originated. Four days later, it was discovered that at least one of the shots broke the glass of a window on the third level of the mansion, the Secret Service said.
At the time of the 2011 breach, the president and first lady Michelle Obama were away, but their daughters were in Washington — one home and the other due to return that night.
Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 2011 incident.
Gonzalez, 42, was arrested Sept. 19 after agents stopped him inside the White House front door.
“The president and the first lady, like all parents, are concerned about the safety of their children, but the president and first lady also have confidence in the men and women of the Secret Service to do a very important job, which is to protect the first family, to protect the White House, but also protect the ability of tourists and members of the public to conduct their business or even tour the White House,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.
After the Sept. 19 breach, Pierson ordered a review of the incident and possible changes to security measures at and around the White House. She briefed the president on Thursday.
“The president is interested in the review that they are conducting, and I would anticipate that he’ll review whatever it is they — whatever reforms and recommendations they settle upon,” Earnest said of the Secret Service’s internal review.
Secret Service officers who spotted Gonzalez scaling the fence quickly assessed that he didn’t have any weapons in his hands and wasn’t wearing clothing that could conceal substantial quantities of explosives, a primary reason agents did not fire their weapons, according to a U.S. official briefed on the investigation.
Gonzalez was on the Secret Service radar as early as July when state troopers arrested him during a traffic stop in southwest Virginia. State troopers there said Gonzalez had an illegal sawed-off shotgun and a map of Washington tucked inside a Bible with a circle around the White House, other monuments and campgrounds. The troopers seized a stash of other weapons and ammunition found during a search of Gonzalez’s car after his arrest.
The Secret Service interviewed Gonzalez in July, but had nothing with which to hold him. Gonzalez was released on bail. Then, on Aug. 25, Gonzalez was stopped and questioned again while he was walking along the south fence of the White House. He had a hatchet, but no firearms. His car was searched, but he was not arrested.
“There’s a misperception out there that we have some broad detention powers,” Donovan, the Secret Service spokesman, said. The Secret Service, like other law enforcement agencies, must have evidence of criminal behavior in order to file charges against someone. “Just because we have a concern about someone doesn’t mean we can interview or arrest them or put them in a mental health facility,” Donovan said.
The Secret Service has been trying to rehabilitate its image since a 2012 prostitution scandal erupted during a presidential visit to Colombia.
Earlier this year Pierson met privately with senators after an agent was found drunk in a hotel during a presidential trip to the Netherlands. That incident came just weeks after two agents in Florida were involved in a traffic accident that The Washington Post reported involved alcohol. There were no charges filed against the agents. And Pierson said neither incident was representative of the entire agency.
–Alicia A. Caldwell and Josh Lederman / Associated Press