Secret Service Head Undoing Was Quick 10/02 06:49
WASHINGTON (AP) -- One lesson from Julia Pierson's short tenure as director
of the agency that protects the first family: The Secret Service can't keep
secrets from the president.
Pierson's undoing was not telling the president about a Sept. 16 incident in
Atlanta in which President Barack Obama rode an elevator with an armed security
contractor during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
two White House officials said. The armed contractor's proximity to Obama
violated the agency's security protocols.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as well as Obama appeared unaware of
the full extent of the Atlanta incident and the Sept. 19 security breach in
which a man armed with a knife jumped the White House fence and entered the
building. Johnson, whose department oversees the Secret Service, was the
driving force behind Pierson's resignation Wednesday, the officials said.
Since taking office last year Johnson had made it clear he wouldn't tolerate
even a whiff of scandal. He had repeatedly expressed concern about the Secret
Service performance in the wake of the White House intruder, said the
officials, who weren't authorized to discuss the issue by name and requested
"In light of recent and accumulating reports about the agency, I think
legitimate questions were raised --- at least they were in the mind of both the
secretary and the president," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The White House learned about the Atlanta incident just before details of
the encounter were published by two newspapers. In a meeting with Johnson,
Pierson offered her resignation without being asked, but Obama had already told
aides he thought she should go. No one put up any resistance when she offered
to step down, officials said.
Pierson did not respond to a telephone message from The Associated Press
seeking comment. In an interview with Bloomberg News, she said she felt leaving
the agency "was the noble thing to do" and her departure "would take pressure
off the organization." She suggested she felt forced out of the Secret Service
after more than 30 years, just 18 months as director.
"Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency," she said.
"The media has made it clear that this is what they expected."
The first clear sign of Pierson's impending fate came Tuesday while she
faced questions about the Sept. 19 breach from members of the House Oversight
and Government Reform Committee.
She told lawmakers she could not explain why the agency issued conflicting
statements on whether the accused intruder was armed --- court records say he
had a 3-inch serrated folding knife --- and how far into the building he got.
Omar Gonzalez was arrested and accused of running into the East Room, well
beyond the unlocked front door he was believed to have entered.
"I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your
reputation here today," Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch told Pierson at the
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and senior member of the committee
who knew about the Atlanta incident before Obama, called for her ouster Tuesday
night. After she resigned, he said, "It was the right thing to do, it had to
happen, but there are some systemic challenges that must be addressed."
Pierson wasn't the first Obama administration official to deal with a
scandal, but how she handled it contrasts starkly with others, including her
immediate predecessor, Mark J. Sullivan.
Sullivan almost immediately suspended, fired or transferred implicated
officers and agents in the immediate aftermath of a 2012 made-for-the-tabloids
prostitution scandal in Colombia. He also quickly changed the rules governing
employee behavior during work trips.
Pierson said Tuesday that personnel actions were pending.
Her departure wasn't likely to end criticism of the agency. Lawmakers have
called for an outside review and Johnson has put Deputy DHS Secretary Alejandro
Mayorkas and the department's general counsel in charge of the Secret Service
"We need a full, top-to-bottom review of the Secret Service and I will soon
introduce legislation to establish an independent panel to conduct this
comprehensive assessment," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman
Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Obama hand-picked Pierson to lead the Secret Service after Sullivan retired
last year, saying at the time she was "eminently qualified" to lead the
scandal-plagued agency. But she may not have had the personal relationship with
him that other presidents have shared with their Secret Service directors. She
never served on his protective detail and was focused more on the business of
the agency than its operations in the years leading up to her promotion.
Johnson earlier this year escorted Pierson to Capitol Hill when she briefed
lawmakers after an employee was found passed out drunk in a Netherlands hotel
during a presidential trip. Johnson's presence was a clear sign of support that
wasn't replicated this week.
Any favor Pierson may have curried in Congress after the last time she
explained an agency misstep quickly vanished Tuesday. One by one, lawmakers on
the powerful House committee --- known as much for partisan sniping as
legislating --- joined ranks to openly and aggressively criticize Pierson's
testimony and her ability to run the agency in charge of presidential security.
"I think she had a disastrous appearance before our committee and I think it
just made her continued tenure untenable," Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in
an interview. "She sounded like a police radio operator as opposed to the head
of a major agency facing a crisis in confidence. She didn't rebuild confidence,
she didn't inspire, she showed no passion or sense of outrage even at what had
happened to her agency."