A series of missteps by a top Secret Service official during a congressional grilling has lawmakers openly questioning the agency’s leadership—especially their claim that the $1.5 billion organization charged with protecting the president didn’t have enough money to do the job.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson told the Congressional Oversight committee Tuesday that the agency was hundreds of employees short of its “optimal level” due to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
“Across the organization, the Secret Service is down 550 personnel,” Pierson said, later adding, “I do see the difficulty in trying to operate a critical federal agency in times of fiscal constraint.”
In the wake of White House fence-jumper Omar Gonzalez’s intrusion deep into the White House, she said, the agency was forced to use bike racks to create a temporary “buffer zone” around the fence while the agency reevaluated its procedures.
Members of Congress pounced on the agency for citing a lack of resources as a line of defense. Senior Republican lawmaker Rep. Darrell Issa noted that the agency’s budget had increased, and there had been no appreciable drop in the number of uniformed officers.
Rep. Mark Meadows likewise grilled Pierson, saying that the agency’s own budget request called for reducing the number of agency staff by hundreds. He also claimed the Secret Service spent $1 million on an “executive luxury suite,” something Pierson said didn’t happen.
Meadows further cited a whistleblower that claimed Pierson had overruled a recommendation that the White House have 100 individuals for counter-surveillance duties, and that Pierson personally made the recommendation to cut this figure by a third.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, noting the 12 senior Secret Service managers accompanying Pierson to the hearing, said that her staff presence alone "cuts against the idea that we have a manpower shortage."
The House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform is a frequent forum for partisan outrage. But members of this committee were unified in their criticism of the Secret Service’s recent screw-ups, which include the crashing of a state dinner by wannabe-reality TV stars; agents’ reported use of prostitutes in Columbia, excessive drinking in the Netherlands, the mishandling of a shooting incident at the White House in 2011, and now an intrusion directly into the White House by a man armed with a knife.
“You have done a disservice to the president of the United States… the pattern of lapsed security and following basic protocols indicate a culture at the Secret Service that needs to change,” lectured Rep. Steven Horsford.
Added a confounded Rep. Tammy Duckworth, “I can’t believe that I’m about to begin this line of questioning.”
Lawmakers didn’t feel that Pierson shared their anger at the recent White House intrusion. Though Pierson did condemn the intrusion as “unacceptable,” pledging to take “full responsibility… that it does not happen again,” lawmakers viewed her as too cool to the problem, openly questioning her leadership as the head of the agency.
“You’re not taking your job seriously… I have very low confidence of the Secret Service under your leadership,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch. “I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.”
“I don’t sense from you, Ms. Pierson, a sense of outrage,” Rep. Gerry Connolly added.
Pierson pushed back, saying that she doesn’t take the agency’s recent missteps lightly.
ÊI am sorry you don’t get that sense from me. I have spent a career in the Secret Service,” she said. “There is nothing more sacred… than our responsibility for mission success.”