Washington: The US Secret Service chief faced withering criticism Tuesday from lawmakers outraged over security breaches at the White House, as she pledged to revamp the agency to prevent an embarrassing repeat.
The grilling before a House panel came after a man carrying a knife scaled the White House fence on September 19 and made it deep into the presidential mansion -- the latest in a string of scandals involving the Secret Service.
"It`s clear that our security plan was not properly executed," Secret Service director Julia Pierson told lawmakers.
"This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility. And I will make sure that it does not happen again."
House Democrat Gerald Connolly called the most recent incident a "cascading set of mistakes" that put President Barack Obama and his family in jeopardy.
Obama "was obviously concerned about this situation," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
But he said the president remained "absolutely" confident in Pierson`s leadership.
Not all lawmakers agreed.
"The jury is still out" on whether Pierson can regain trust, said House Democrat Elijah Cummings.
Lawmakers wanted to know how the intruder, a US Army veteran suffering from mental problems, could scale the fence, race 70 yards (64 meters) across the lawn and through unlocked front doors of the White House, knock down an agent, and run into the East Room without being stopped.
While Pierson testified, The Washington Post reported that the person who ultimately tackled the intruder was an off-duty Secret Service officer who was coincidentally walking through the house when the breach occurred.Pierson, who has been the agency`s chief since March 2013, said a thorough investigation had been launched and she acknowledged that the elite service has had its "share of challenges" in recent years.
"I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general, to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform," she told the House Government Oversight Committee.
"Enhancements will be made and personnel actions will be taken."
Committee chairman Darrell Issa said it was "amazing and unacceptable" that an intruder made it into the White House.
"Inexplicably, Omar Gonzalez breached at least `five rings` of security," Issa said.
"The fact is, the system broke down on September 19, as it did when the Salahis crashed a state dinner in November 2009, or when Oscar Ortega-Hernandez successfully shot at the White House on November 2011," he said.
Issa also noted other embarrassing lapses by Secret Service agents, including a 2012 prostitution scandal in Colombia ahead of a visit by Obama, and drunk agents in the Netherlands last March.The 2011 incident was the subject of an explosive recent Post report highlighting how long it took for the Secret Service to determine that the White House was struck by gunfire while one of Obama`s daughters was inside.
Pierson acknowledged that while witnesses saw a man firing shots toward the White House, it was not until "three to four days later" that the Secret Service discovered the mansion had been hit.
Some lawmakers suggested that Pierson, who served for decades as a Secret Service officer before becoming chief, sought to cover up agency lapses that led to the most recent breach.
"I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today," House Democrat Stephen Lynch boomed. "I have very low confidence in the Secret Service under your leadership."
Republican Jason Chaffetz, who heads the panel`s national security subcommittee, told Pierson that "overwhelming force" -- not "restraint" -- should be used on White House intruders.
"If the would-be intruder cannot be stopped by a dog or intercepted by a person, perhaps more lethal force is necessary," Chaffetz said.
Most White House fence-jumpers -- there have been 16 in the last five years -- are unarmed and swiftly apprehended.
But Issa, who demanded an independent investigation of the breach, peppered Pierson with questions about how the intruder managed to get so far into the mansion.
"Why didn`t security dogs stop him in his tracks? What about the SWAT team? And why was the door left unlocked?"
Pierson acknowledged that "the front door at the time did not have an automatic locking mechanism," but one has since been installed.
Several lawmakers noted that authorities knew Gonzalez had a history of mental problems.
"This is the Secret Service against one individual with mental illness -- and you lost," Lynch told Pierson.