US Secret Service 'fell short' protecting White House

An undated police booking photo shows Omar Gonzalez.  The agency charged with protecting President Barack Obama and his family admitted Wednesday that an "inexcusable" series of failures had allowed a disturbed veteran to storm the White Ho
An undated police booking photo shows Omar Gonzalez.  The agency charged with protecting President Barack Obama and his family admitted Wednesday that an "inexcusable" series of failures had allowed a disturbed veteran to storm the White House on Sept 19. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The agency charged with protecting President Barack Obama and his family admitted Wednesday that an "inexcusable" series of failures had allowed a disturbed veteran to storm the White House.

Secret Service acting director Joseph Clancy told the House Judiciary Committee the front door of the White House had been unlocked and a dog handler was chatting on his mobile phone.

He promised to lead a "comprehensive, bottom to top assessment" of an agency already tarnished by other scandals in order to improve the security of the White House and the President.

But the Republican committee chair, Bob Goodlatte, warned those protecting the President have "no margin for error" and recent mistakes suggest the agency is "not entirely up to the task".

Clancy, who took over after director Julia Pierson resigned in September amid an outcry over several security lapses, said the Sept 19 fence-jumping incident was "simply inexcusable."

He admitted a "convergence of failures" including the unlocked front door, a poorly performing communications system and an agent handling a guard dog using his personal mobile phone.

"While we strive for perfection, we have, on limited occasions, fallen short of that goal," he said.

Clancy said he was working to improve communication between Secret Service agents and management and has met with agents at the White House during daily roll call and listen to their concerns.

The Omar Gonzales incident was the latest in a string of failures, including one in which an armed contractor with a criminal record rode an elevator carrying Obama at the Centres for Disease Control.

Last week, a damning Department of Homeland Security report emerged outlining the blunders related to the fence-jumping incident.

The review found authorities had also failed to properly investigate Gonzalez, a homeless Iraq war veteran, after he had come to the attention of law enforcement months earlier.

"I found the findings devastating," Clancy told lawmakers.

And in the Obama elevator incident, Clancy admitted "we did not follow the proper procedures."

"We need to do better training, and reshape some of the training that we're doing," he added.

Lawmakers also interrogated Clancy over erroneous statements provided by the Secret Service public affairs office on the day.

Press officers told reporters that Gonzalez got only just inside the north portico doors of the White House, and that he was not armed.

A review confirmed he had in fact got deep into the mansion after overpowering a guard and was found carrying a knife.

"There have to be consequences" for those providing such misinformation, Republican Jason Chaffetz boomed.

"We gave bad information," Clancy acknowledged. "We failed on that day."

Democrat Steve Cohen, who suggested a moat might offer extra protection, wryly observed that Gonzalez got "further into the White House than some of my Republican colleagues have ever gotten."

House Republican Ted Poe took a more serious tone.

"There can't be mistakes," Poe said. "You can not do a redo if there is a mistake in the security of the President."

Clancy said the Secret Service is meeting with city and federal officials about raising the height of the White House fence and installing other protective measures.

"We think we're going to find some solutions to make it more difficult for people to get over that fence," he said.