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Secret Service Head: Breach Won't Happen Again

FILE - United States Secret Service director Julia Pierson enters a hearing room to answer questions before a closed meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee in Washington, April 1, 2014.

The director of the U.S. Secret Service, testifying before a House committee Tuesday, accepted responsibility for security lapses at the White House, including the recent breach by a man carrying a knife, calling them unacceptable and promised “it will never happen again.”

“It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly,” Julia Pierson said in prepared testimony to a House of Representatives committee investigating the Sept. 19 intrusion.

Republicans and Democrats alike said they wanted Pierson to explain during her appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee how she plans to change the agency's culture and procedures.

The hearing, shown live on the House of Representatives website, began at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

Pierson told the House panel that she ordered extra security measures around the White House immediately after the breach. She also said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had requested an investigation.

She did not provide details of the breach in her prepared testimony, deferring some issues to a closed session with committee members to follow.

Agency had troubles

But Pierson did acknowledge the problems and missteps that have dogged the Secret Service in recent years. Those included a lone gunman firing shots at the White House in 2011, a prostitution scandal involving agents in Colombia in 2012 and a night of drinking in March that led to three agents being sent home from a presidential trip to Amsterdam.

The Secret Service has apprehended 16 individuals who have jumped the fence over the last five years, including six this year alone, she said.

She wrote that the Secret Service will complete a thorough investigation of the incident, review its policies and procedures, and make any changes necessary to ensure the safety of the president and his family.

In the most recent incident, the Secret Service initially said Iraq war veteran Gonzalez, 42, was arrested just inside the main entrance, but news outlets Monday said he rushed past a guard at the front door and ran down a hallway past a staircase leading to the living quarters for President Barack Obama and his family before he was subdued.

The Secret Service also initially said Gonzalez was unarmed, but it was later revealed he was carrying a knife.

New details emerged

Prosecutors have said Gonzalez was stopped, but not arrested, in August, after he walked past the White House with a hatchet in his waistband. He was also arrested in July after state police found weapons in his car following a high-speed chase in nearby Virginia.

The intrusion could have been more serious if the suspect had been heavily armed and the Obama family had been in the mansion.

Obama appointed Pierson, 55, a 30-year Secret Service veteran, in March 2013.

The first female director in the agency's 148-history, she was given the mission of cleaning up the agency's culture after the 2012 trip to Colombia in which up to a dozen agents were found to have hired prostitutes.

Pierson has asked the committee to hold part of the hearing in a classified setting, behind closed doors. Divulging too much about security procedures at the White House would "arm" would-be attackers with critical information, she said.

Oversight panel

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, who heads the Oversight panel's national security subcommittee, criticized the leadership of the Secret Service agency.

"I'm concerned that there's a total lack of leadership and very questionable protocol," Chaffetz said.

"I get the sense the problems are getting worse, not better, and I want to give her a chance to respond," he said of Pierson.

Representative Elijah Cummings, the Oversight committee's top Democrat, said: "I want to know about the culture that could let this happen. I don't want people to even imagine that they can get past the Secret Service to do harm to anyone they're guarding, period."

Chaffetz said he also wants to know more about the agency's policies regarding the use of lethal force.

In an era of threats from Islamic State militants, he said, the agency used far too much restraint in dealing with Gonzalez.

Since the incident, the White House has treaded carefully.

Although White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged the president was "obviously concerned" about the intrusion, he expressed confidence in the Secret Service as recently as Monday, according to The Associated Press.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.