Secret Service director quits: Here's why Congress was extra-mad with her

Even a deeply partisan Congress rallied quickly around the view that it's time for Julia Person to go. Her responses at a hearing Tuesday failed to convince lawmakers that she was willing to deal with the lapses forthrightly.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. A day later, she announced her resignation.

Washington is normally a bitterly partisan place, but on Wednesday top lawmakers of both parties united behind a single idea: US Secret Service Director Julia Pierson needed to lose her job.

And for once gridlock was replaced with action. By afternoon Ms. Pierson had resigned after meeting with her direct boss, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

“Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency,” said Pierson, according to a report from Bloomberg News reporter Del Quintin Weber, who spoke briefly with her following her resignation. “The media has made it clear that this is what they expected.”

That’s something Pierson was right about. Lawmakers were highly critical of her following her disastrous appearance at a Tuesday hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It seemed to be only a matter of time until she was replaced.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner had come within an inch of demanding Pierson be fired, saying in a statement that “the president must make a swift determination of whether the agency is being well-served by its current leadership." Hint, hint.

Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi had called for an independent investigation of Secret Service missteps. She said she would back Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, if he thought Pierson had become a liability.

“If Mr. Cummings thinks she should go, I subscribe to his recommendation,” said Representative Pelosi.

Representative Cummings, for his part, told MSNBC that he did “not feel comfortable with her in that position." He later told a radio host that Pierson should be dismissed. Other lawmakers were less circumspect. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah told Fox News that “it’s time that she be fired ... or resign."  Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said the recent Secret Service lapses are “a scandal” and that Pierson “needs to go."

In some ways this baying for Ms. Pierson’s job wasn’t fair. She was been head of the US Secret Service for a bit more than a year. That’s not much time to change the agency’s culture. She wasn’t even director at the time of some famous agency goofs, such as the 2009 admittance of two gate-crashers to a White House state dinner.

But in other ways the ruckus may have been deserved. Last week’s fence-jumper incident, in which Army veteran Omar Gonzalez made it all the way through the White House East Room before being tackled, was a grave Secret Service error. It happened on Pierson’s watch. Just as bad was a Sept. 16 incident, newly disclosed by the Washington Post, in which an armed security guard who was also a convicted felon accompanied President Obama into an elevator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Plus, the Secret Service director did some things that made her own situation worse. Her appearance at a Tuesday hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was, by many accounts, a poor performance that may have led directly to her resignation. Pierson was wooden, unemotional about her agency’s mistakes, and did not respond to a number of questions about details, such as where Mr. Gonzalez was captured.

She did not talk about the breach of security at the CDC in Atlanta in open session. Afterward, it was apparent that lawmakers felt she was not being completely honest with them, and may have tried to actively avoid reporting some problems in an attempt to protect subordinates. That was bound to get some members of Congress pretty mad.

In the end, it’s possible that Pierson was pushed to quit. President Obama offered only lukewarm words of regret after the resignation was announced.

“The president concluded that new leadership of [the Secret Service] was required,” said Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Now the administration needs to keep moving to truly reform the Secret Service, writes National Journal veteran correspondent Ron Fournier.

The first step would be to pull the Secret Service out of the Department of Homeland Security, where it currently resides, and restore its semi-autonomous status under the Department of the Treasury, according to Mr. Fournier.

The Secret Service was founded as an arm of the Treasury – it fought counterfeiters – and gained elite status among the nation’s law enforcement agencies. At DHS, it was just another cog in a large conglomerate.

“As we see at the Internal Revenue Service, the National Football League, and the many other acronymed entities, it’s easy to lose sight of your calling from inside an ossified institution,” writes Fournier.

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