“It’s unacceptable,” Ms Pierson told politicians as she faced blistering criticism before a House of Representatives committee.
But her promised review of how the agency carries out its mission of protecting the US president – and how it failed to intercept the intruder much earlier – left politicians from both parties cold. With key details of the extraordinary intrusion still a mystery 11 days after the event, several politicians said the agency should be subjected to an independent inquiry.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today,” Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch told Ms Pierson at a hearing.
Calm but defensive before the House oversight and government reform committee, Ms Pierson disclosed that shortly before the intruder jumped the fence on 19 September, at least two of her uniformed officers recognised him from an earlier troubling encounter but did not approach him or report his presence to superiors.
On 25 August, army veteran Omar J Gonzalez was stopped while carrying a small hatchet near the fence south of the White House, she said. Weeks later, the same officers observed him “for some time” but never intervened. Gonzalez later scaled the fence and broke into the White House.
President Barack Obama and his daughters had left for Camp David shortly before the episode. First Lady Michelle Obama had left earlier in the day.
“The fact is the system broke down,” said chairman Darrell Issa. “An intruder walked in the front door of the White House, and that is unacceptable.”
Not only that, he said, but the intruder penetrated at least five rings of security protecting what is supposed to be one of the world’s most secure properties. After the public hearing, which lasted more than three hours, Ms Pierson and the committee went into a closed meeting to discuss classified details.
Despite the lapses, she insisted “the president is safe”. And she said of the intrusion: “I’ll make sure it does not happen again.”
Mr Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest urged the Secret Service to release results from its investigation as soon as possible, although he added that parts are likely to remain classified. He said Mr Obama remains confident in the agency.
The president “was obviously concerned about this situation as a parent and as a father raising two young women in this building”, Mr Earnest said.
He added: “There is legitimate public interest in this matter because it relates to the safety and security of the commander in chief.”
Ms Pierson’s assurances fell short for critics from both the Democratic and Republican parties. Such breaches, combined with recurring reports of misbehaviour within the agency, cause “many people to ask whether there is a much broader problem with the Secret Service”, said Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat.
Members of Congress briefed by the agency apparently were not told of the full extent of the breaches. And the Secret Service released a statement incorrectly saying the intruder was not armed, and never corrected the release. Under questioning, Ms Pierson said she saw the inaccurate statement before the agency put it out.