It was clear that something had to be done to shore up the fundamentals at the Secret Service. And the agency’s director, Julia Pierson, on Wednesday cleared the way for an overhaul by announcing that she would step down. Good move.
Pierson had tried on Tuesday to explain to Congress why problems persist at the agency charged with protecting the president. She wasn’t very convincing.
Pierson became director of the Secret Service a year and a half ago. Some of the most shameful and embarrassing incidents occurred before that. The prostitutes-in-Colombia episode occurred in 2012 under her predecessor. The bungled response to a shooting at the White House happened in 2011.
But in 18 months, Pierson hasn’t righted the ship of security. In the spring, an intoxicated agent and two others who had been drinking with him were sent home from Amsterdam the day before President Obama arrived. In September, agents allowed a man with a concealed gun to ride an elevator with the president. And then there is the most recent incident, the one that prompted Tuesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
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On Sept. 19, Army veteran Omar Gonzalez hopped the White House fence and barreled into the building with a knife. He forced his way past one Secret Service agent, ran by the stairs that led to the First Family’s private rooms and into the East Room. There, a guard, who just happened to be passing through, tackled Gonzalez.
In the movies, miscreants implement elaborate plans to break into the White House. In the real world, it doesn’t require cloak and dagger, only running shoes and a lax Secret Service.
After the incident, the Secret Service tried its hardest to tarnish its reputation even more. It initially insisted that guards stopped Gonzalez at the front door. Skeptical journalists kept digging and found out he’d made it much farther. When an agency resorts to deception to make its mistakes look less bad, something is broken.
At least agents learned a couple of lessons. They will start locking the door and have restored the volume on a muted alarm.
No doubt Pierson tried her best to correct institutional problems, but she came up through the ranks, embedded in the culture that now fails. Sometimes it is hard to fix an organization from the inside.
The president must tread carefully in leveling criticism. These are the people he must trust without reservation to protect him and his family.
Congress and the American people are not so burdened. They should demand answers beyond the platitudes that Pierson gave this week. “I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts,” she said.
Perhaps Pierson came to the conclusion that she could not follow through with an honest and forthright appraisal of the agency’s deep-seated institutional failings. It’s time to find a leader for the service who can.