Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned Wednesday amid mounting congressional criticism and as new revelations of agency lapses convinced President Barack Obama it was time for new leadership.
Joseph Clancy, a former special agent in charge of the Presidential Protective Division of the Secret Service who retired in 2011, was named as acting agency director.
Pierson, the first woman to head the elite agency that provides protection to presidents, former presidents and would-be presidents, offered her resignation less than two weeks after a man armed with a knife scrambled over a White House fence and made it inside the executive mansion.
Obama called Pierson and thanked her for more than 30 years with the service, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. He noted that Pierson at a congressional hearing on Tuesday held herself accountable for the security breach and pledged it wouldn’t happen again.
“She took responsibility for the shortcomings of the agency that she led, and she took responsibility for fixing them,” Earnest said. “That, quite simply, I think, is a testament to her professionalism and to her character.”
But Earnest added that as more revelations about Secret Service problems were revealed, “The president concluded that new leadership of the agency was required.” He said Obama has no timeline for selecting a new director.
As Pierson was testifying Tuesday, reports surfaced that agency protocols failed during Obama’s recent trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The Washington Examiner and The Washington Post reported that Obama apparently shared an elevator with a security contractor who was carrying a gun and had three criminal convictions for assault and battery on his record.
The White House did not learn about the Atlanta incident “until shortly before it was reported,” Earnest said.
Pierson submitted her resignation to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said he will back a review “by a distinguished panel of independent experts” to look at White House security and “related issues.” He said the members would be named shortly and would submit recommendations to him by Dec. 15.
Johnson said he’d also ask the panel for recommendations for potential new Secret Service directors, including recommendations for candidates “who come from outside the Secret Service.”
Johnson said he’d ask the panel to advise him whether it believes there should be a review of “broader issues concerning the Secret Service,” but he added that security at the White House would be the group’s “primary and immediate priority.”
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will take over an ongoing investigation into the fence-jumping incident at the White House and report his findings by Nov. 1, Johnson said.
Pierson’s resignation came as the man who scaled the fence, Omar Gonzalez, 42, appeared in a federal court. He pleaded not guilty to charges of unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a dangerous weapon, carrying a dangerous weapon outside a home and unlawful possession of ammunition. He was ordered to remain held in jail.
Pierson, whom Obama appointed to the post in 2013 in hopes of restoring confidence in an agency that had been rattled by a prostitution scandal, told Congress that the agency’s “security plan was not executed properly” and pledged reform.
But lawmakers appeared uneasy with Pierson’s ability to fix the agency, and she faced mounting pressure Wednesday to show results or step down.
Many hailed her decision to step down, with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has met with whistleblowers from the agency calling for her position to be “filled immediately by new leadership from outside the Secret Service for a fresh start.”
Pierson met behind closed doors with lawmakers after a lengthy public hearing, but Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said she did not assuage their concerns.
Cummings, who said he is worried that whistleblowers approach members of Congress rather than agency management, said he respected Pierson’s decision “and now we have to ensure that we focus on the difficult work of fully restoring the Secret Service to its rightful status as the most elite protective service in the world.”
It was unclear Wednesday how many investigations will be conducted. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday he backed a call for an independent “blue-ribbon commission” to conduct a comprehensive review of the agency, saying “the more we discover, the clearer it becomes that the Secret Service is beset by a culture of complacency and incompetence.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he plans legislation to set up an independent panel. McCaul said he hoped Pierson’s resignation would be “the beginning of a new chapter for the dedicated men and women of the Secret Service.” But, he added, “the growing list of failures from USSS seems to be more pervasive than just its leadership.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she backs an independent investigation, calling the episodes involving the fence jumper and the contractor with the gun “inexcusable.”
“I think an independent investigation is what is needed, not just to hold people accountable, but to see how we should go forward in a way that, again, has precision, accountability and is flawless because the protection of the president is really important to our reputation, the reputation of the Secret Service,” she said.
Pierson told Bloomberg News on Wednesday that the media “expected” her to resign.
“I think it’s in the best interest of the Secret Service and the American public if I step down,” she told Bloomberg. “Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency. The media has made it clear that this is what they expected.”
White House spokesman Earnest said earlier Wednesday that Obama “and everybody here at the White House stand solidly behind all of the men and women in the Secret Service, including the director of the Secret Service.”
Asked later what had changed, he noted that Pierson had submitted her resignation and that Obama believed the “recent and accumulating reports had raised legitimate questions about the performance of the agency.”
Earnest noted that Clancy will be taking a leave of absence from his private sector job to return to the agency.
“The president is grateful that he has taken on that very important responsibility,” Earnest said, adding Clancy was “somebody who has earned the respect and admiration of the men and women who are his colleagues at the United States Secret Service.”
And Earnest said Clancy “is also somebody who has the full confidence of the president and the first lady.”