Obama appoints first female director of Secret Service. Why Julia Pierson? (+video)

Julia Pierson is tasked with helping to restore credibility to the Secret Service after the agency's prostitution scandal. Reaction to her appointment has been favorable.

By , Correspondent

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    President Obama is accompanied by members of his Secret Service detail as he walks from the Marine One helicopter as he arrives at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to visit with wounded military personnel in Bethesda, Md., March 5.
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President Obama announced his appointment of the first female director of the US Secret Service on Tuesday, a milestone for the agency tasked with protecting political leaders and investigating currency fraud.

Law enforcement experts and political officials say that Ms. Pierson’s appointment comes at a crucial time in the agency’s history as it continues to recover from a scandal in April 2012, when agents in Colombia were disciplined for soliciting prostitutes. Pierson’s main tasks include reforming a male-dominated culture within the agency and reestablishing its credibility.

“During the Colombia prostitution scandal, the Secret Service lost the trust of many Americans, and failed to live up to the high expectations placed on it," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa told Reuters on Tuesday. “Ms. Pierson has a lot of work ahead of her to create a culture that respects the important job the agency is tasked with. I hope she succeeds in restoring lost credibility in the Secret Service.”

Barbara Riggs, a mentor to Pierson and the agency’s first female deputy director, said that the scandal was not representative of the level of professionalism at the Secret Service and that Pierson will play a role in restoring its public image.

“She has a challenge in front of her because unfortunately in the public eye that’s what’s branding the Secret Service,” Riggs told The New York Times. “She has a challenge to move the agency beyond that.”

Pierson joined the Secret Service in 1983, working in the Miami and Orlando, Fla., field offices. She served as special agent in charge of the office of protective services from 2000 to 2001. She was on presidential protective detail on 9/11 in charge of making sure former President Clinton and President George W. Bush were accounted for, not knowing if there would be more attacks. From 2006 to 2008, she was the assistant director of Human Resources and Training, during which she oversaw the agency’s technology upgrade.

She became the chief of staff in 2008, the same year she received the Presidential Meritorious Award for superior performance in management throughout her career.

In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine in 2007, Pierson said she knew she wanted a career in law enforcement, starting with the Orlando Police Department while still in college. The Secret Service gave her the chance be an investigator and also travel, but it also has its challenges.

“We're a small agency with a large mission. Our size gives us the ability to have more personal knowledge of each other as employees,” she said in the interview. “Some people call it a cult, other people call it a family, but I do think it's unique.”

Pierson joins two other female directors of law enforcement agencies: Michele Leonhart is administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and Stacia Hylton is director of the US Marshals Service. Both were appointed in 2010.

“It’s about time the Secret Service finally did get a female director,” especially since it started accepting female agents in 1975, said Ron Kessler, author of "In the President’s Secret Service," in an interview with ABC News.

The agency currently has 3,200 special agents, 1,300 uniformed division officers, and more than 2,000 other technical, professional, and administrative support personnel, according to the Secret Service website. Women are estimated to make up between 10 and 20 percent of the force.

Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, said in a statement that she is “proud of the historic decision” by Obama to appoint the agency's first female director. Pierson, she said, is “exceptionally well-qualified, and well-equipped” to lead the agency after 30 years of Secret Service experience.

“I am confident that Julia's background and capabilities will enable her to effectively lead the Secret Service as it continues to protect the safety of our First Families, our nation’s leaders, and the public at large,” Secretary Napolitano said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, echoed that sentiment and called Pierson’s appointment “welcome news and a proud milestone.”

“Ms. Pierson’s vast experience has prepared her to lead this agency with its critical protective, investigative and cybersecurity missions.... I look forward to working with Ms. Pierson as she helps usher in a new chapter for the U.S. Secret Service,” Senator Carper said in a statement.

Julia Pierson, the highest-ranking female agent in the Secret Service, will replace outgoing director Mark Sullivan who announced his retirement in February.

Mr. Obama cited Pierson’s “exemplary career” and said her experience with the agency will guide her through its current challenges.

“Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day,” Obama said in a statement. He added, “Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own.”

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