Internal review finds major Secret Service failures in fence climber incident
A U.S. Secret Service agent with an automatic rifle hurries people to evacuate the White House complex over a security alert moments after President Barack Obama and his family left for the presidential retreat, Camp David, in Maryland, September 19, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An intruder was able to scale the White House fence and enter the executive mansion in September because of major Secret Service failures including an agent who was distracted by a personal cellphone call, according to an internal review released on Thursday.

Iraq war veteran Omar Gonzalez, 42, is accused of breaking into the heavily guarded complex on Sept. 19 armed with a knife in one of the most significant security breaches since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

The suspect was not stopped until he entered the main floor of the White House. In addition to the knife he was carrying, officers found more weapons in his car.

The incident helped spur the resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.

According to the review by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the suspect climbed over the 7-foot (2-metre) fence where a "trident," or ornamental spike was missing.

Several uniformed Secret Service agents were stationed in the area but were unable to see the intruder because of a construction project along the fence line, the report said, which also cited breakdowns in radio communications.

A canine officer stationed on the White House driveway with a guard dog was on his personal cellphone at the time of the intrusion and was not wearing his earpiece, the review said.

After spotting the intruder, the officer moved toward him and gave the dog the command to apprehend the suspect. But the canine "did not have enough time to lock onto" the intruder and "may not have seen him at all," according to the report's executive summary.

“This report indicates that the Secret Service’s response at the White House was significantly hampered on September 19th because of critical and major failures in communications, confusion about operational protocols and gaps in staffing and training," the review said. "While some of these problems can be attributed to a lack of resources, others are systemic and indicative of Secret Service culture."

Michael McCaul, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, introduced legislation on Thursday to form a panel "to conduct a top-to-bottom review" of the Secret Service.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said the review "reads as a comedy of errors by the U.S. Secret Service and confirms that fundamental reform is needed to improve both the security of the White House grounds and staff training."

(Reporting by Peter Cooney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)