(by Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post) -- 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 fuller 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 counter-assault 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.”
President Barack Obama is accompanied by then U.S. Secret Service Agent Joseph Clancy as he arrives at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in September 2009. Clancy will take over as head of the Secret Service on a temporary basis. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
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 former 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 counter-surveillance 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 Uniformed Division officers 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 that Obama hosted this summer, demanding that they dismantle extra layers of fencing and reopen closed streets, according to two agency supervisors.
Support on Capitol Hill dwindled quickly after a hearing and amid increasing revelations of Secret Service mistakes.
Supervisors who had mapped out the security plan said they were taken aback when Pierson, who worked during high school at 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 counter-assault 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, a Gray spokesman said.