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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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