The resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson and the launch of a top-to-bottom review of the agency Wednesday are an acknowledgment by President Obama of what he has long denied: that the force charged with protecting him is in deep turmoil and struggling to fulfill its sacred mission.
The 6,700-member agency, long an elite class of skilled professionals who prized their jobs, now suffers from diminished luster and historically high turnover rates. Officers in charge of protecting the White House say they have grown resentful at being belittled by their bosses and routinely forced to work on off-days. Some agents who have sworn to take a bullet for the president and his family have little faith in the wisdom or direction of their senior-most leaders. Those chronic woes have been amplified in recent days by revelations of a string of humiliating security lapses that have raised concerns about the president’s safety and prompted the agency’s biggest crisis since President Ronald Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton three decades ago.
Joseph Clancy, a retired agent who served as the head of Obama’s protective detail briefly after the president was first elected, was named to take over on a temporary basis. He will serve as a caretaker while a full review is conducted and until a permanent replacement can be found.
“Replacing the director is a good start in the right direction,” said Dan Emmett, a former counterassault team leader and Secret Service agent. But, he added, “replacing the director will not be effective unless the entire upper management is replaced. Otherwise it will just be business as usual.”
Pierson was elevated to the top spot 18 months ago to put an end to business as usual, after a dozen agents were implicated in a night of carousing with prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, on the eve of an official visit by Obama. But while the administration dubbed Pierson a fresh start and a new direction for the agency, she was a deeply entrenched part of its culture. A 30-year veteran of the agency, Pierson had served as director Mark Sullivan’s chief of staff and then assistant director before taking over.
Under her watch, the agency continued to suffer from systemic problems that went well beyond the embarrassment of the prostitution scandal. For instance, staffing shortages have grown so severe that the agency has had to fly in field agents from across the country for two-week temporary details, paying their travel, hotel and per-diem costs.
Pierson also rejected an internal study’s recommendations that the White House have a total of about 100 countersurveillance officers to patrol the perimeter of the complex. She suggested cutting the recommended number by a third. And Pierson had agreed to shrink key units in the agency, including the number of officers from the uniformed division who guard the White House complex.
In her 18 months in charge, Pierson also became the subject of derision among some lower-level agents for accommodating the White House staff’s wishes for less-cumbersome security over the warnings of her tactical teams.
In the spring, Pierson was irate at what she considered the excessive security measures her team had planned for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which Obama hosted this summer, demanding that it dismantle extra layers of fencing and reopen closed streets, according to two agency supervisors. Supervisors who had mapped out the security plan said they were taken aback when Pierson, who worked during high school at Walt Disney World as a costumed character and park attendant, said: “We need to be more like Disney World. We need to be more friendly, inviting.”
“I respect Pierson’s service, but she hasn’t been on a protective mission in two decades,” said one supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “She doesn’t know anything about security planning in a post-9/11 world.”
On a presidential trip this past spring to the Netherlands, Pierson told several counterassault team members stationed at posts in the president’s hotel to move to more remote locations and put their weapons in bags, causing the sharpshooters to worry that their reaction time would be hampered in an emergency.
And this week, Pierson personally ordered that a downtown Washington street be left open near a hotel where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was staying. Secret Service teams have insisted on the closure for years because Netanyahu is considered one of the most sought-
after international targets. But the director agreed to changes because of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s concern that the street’s closure during an earlier visit caused severe gridlock, said a spokesman for Gray (D).
Pierson was called to a Capitol Hill hearing this week to explain how a man carrying a knife was able to jump the White House fence and then run inside the executive mansion and through much of the main floor before being tackled by an off-duty agent.
Lawmakers also grilled Pierson about a botched investigation of a 2011 shooting at the White House, details of which were first reported by The Washington Post on Sunday. Pierson irritated lawmakers when she said she knew little about the incident, despite having been the agency’s chief of staff at the time, and learned some of the details from The Post’s account.
Some lawmakers on Tuesday read aloud portions of The Post’s story to underscore larger concerns about what they said was a broken culture within the agency. They pointed to a young officer on duty the night of the shooting who heard shots fired and debris falling but was afraid to contradict supervisors who had incorrectly concluded that no shots had been aimed at the White House. Several members said they had been hearing from agents and officers who do not feel they can make their concerns known internally.
“It is very disturbing to know that Secret Service agents, in the most elite protective agency in the world, feel more comfortable, apparently, from what I’m hearing, coming to members of this committee and telling things than coming to you and members in the agency,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said during one sharp exchange with Pierson.
Lawmakers were also annoyed by the administration’s budget request for this year for an agency that has claimed to be chronically underfunded.
Homeland Security requested $1.49 billion in operating funds for the Secret Service, a $60 million dip from last fiscal year. But even spending-conscious Republicans said that was too much. So Congress instead agreed to a rare increase over the administration’s request, giving the agency $1.53 billion.
Shortly after the contentious hearing with lawmakers came another revelation: On a recent trip to Atlanta, a contract security guard with a gun and a criminal record was allowed in an elevator with Obama.
Making matters worse, neither the president nor Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was told about it. A senior U.S. official said Johnson was “deeply disappointed” when he learned about the incident. White House officials said they first learned about the breakdown minutes before The Post published the story online.
Clancy, who spent much of his career at the Secret Service as a senior agent on the protective detail for President George W. Bush, is not expected to clean house or reform the agency, according to officials briefed on his appointment.
“He’s one of the most genteel guys. It would be very hard to find someone to say something bad about Joe,” said one longtime agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. But, the agent added: “He doesn’t like conflict. They need to clean house. He’s not the guy to do it.”
Rosalind Helderman, David Nakamura and Alice Crites contributed to this report.