WASHINGTON: The Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where Secret Service director Julia Pierson shouldered the blame for an intruder entering the White House.
Pierson confirmed at the hearing, entitled White House Perimeter Breach: New Concerns about the Secret Service, that an intruder was able to enter the White House through an unlocked door on the evening of September 19, after scaling the fence and running across the lawn.
The door Gonzalez entered through has since been updated with an automated locking system, said Pierson.
Irate committee members, who were visibly incensed over the miscues recently brought to light by media, did not hold back at the hearing, often shouting into their microphones.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, from Maryland’s 7th district, noted that other incidents, such as the Colombian prostitution scandal in 2012, "had little to do with tactical damages," but "seriously damaged the agency’s credibility." The congressman added that the Secret Service’s reputation should be one of "excellence and effectiveness."
Gonzalez had not only made it over the White House fence and into the entryway on the night of September 19 – as initial reports indicated – he was also not apprehended until he reached the East Room, according to The Washington Post on Monday.
A new report Tuesday revealed that an off-duty Secret Service agent was able to finally stop Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife.
Another major security concern was detailed in The Washington Post on Sunday about shots fired on the White House in November 2011. President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama were out of town, but their daughter, Sasha, and her grandmother were in the mansion at the time of the incident, according to the report.
Pierson admitted during Tuesday’s hearing that it took at least three to four days before the Secret Service realized shots were fired on the First Family’s home.
Despite her effort to shoulder the blame for the agency’s mistakes, Pierson struggled to save face at Tuesday’s hearing.
Communications experts in the nation’s capital told PRWeek how the Secret Service can start rebuilding its reputation among the American public and the First Family.
Margaret Dunning, managing partner, Widmeyer, a Finn Partners Company
Margaret Thatcher is credited with saying, "In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman." I’m holding out hope that Secret Service director Julia Pierson will prove this to be true. What’s needed now is less talk and real action – measureable and visible steps that will allow our faith in the Secret Service to be restored.
Corey Ealons, SVP, Vox Global
The Secret Service brand with the American people is built entirely on one mission: the agency’s ability to protect the president and his family regardless of party or politics. Right now they not only need to demonstrate a firm commitment to that mission through training and protocols, but also through an agency ethos that meets the expectations of the public at large as well as their most important client – the President of the United States. That ethos shouldn’t just describe what they do but also define who they are.
Daniel Hill, president, Ervin | Hill Strategy
The Secret Service faces two very different challenges: one involving the organization’s character and the other its ability to do its job.
The reputation recovery efforts for the Secret Service are further complicated by the fact that it’s a taxpayer funded entity. Public sector organizations simply cannot afford or engage in full blown campaigns. For that reason, it will need to focus most or all of its resources on reestablishing credibility with key stakeholders, including the First Family. The general public probably won’t see much of those efforts. It is critical that the agency demonstrate some level of internal transparency in acknowledging just what went wrong, and more importantly, what it will do to ensure that these kinds of lapses do not occur in the future.
Gene Grabowski, senior strategist, Levick
Some dramatic and forceful steps are now called for as a result of recent revelations about lapses in performance by the Secret Service and the poor response by Director Julia Pierson at a Congressional hearing investigating the problem. Immediate steps include:
- Demonstrate that President Obama’s administration and the Secret Service are serious about improving the performance of the organization by firing Director Julia Pierson.
- Announce sweeping changes in protective procedures and strict enforcement of the service’s code of conduct.
- Arrange for former Secret Service agents to give interviews with the news media so that the public better understands the challenges and rigors of the job entrusted to the service and how its assignments are more difficult to accomplish than ever before.
- Leverage the fact that an increasing number of agents are highly capable and well-trained women, sending them on tours with their male counterparts to demonstrate how competence and teamwork are put to work within the service.
- Better publicize the Secret Service Museum in Washington and create a smaller "road-show" version that can visit schools and fairs around the country. Right now, the institution in Washington is open only to Secret Service members, their families, and invited guests.