Secret Service Head Faces Steep Climb to Regain Trust

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies Tuesday. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson testifies Tuesday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

This is not how it was supposed to be. This is not what anyone could have anticipated just 554 days ago when President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden beamed as Julia Pierson was sworn in as the first woman to head the Secret Service. There were lots of smiles on that day, and much talk about the history being made.

Those smiles were gone on Tuesday when a much more subdued, even grim, Pierson appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Not since James Rowley, Secret Service director at the time of the Kennedy assassination, testified before the Warren Commission on June 18, 1964, has anyone in her position faced such a grilling. In fact, Pierson was treated considerably rougher than was Rowley, who lost a president on his watch but still held on to the top spot for another 10 years.

Pierson may not be as fortunate if holding the confidence of Congress is important to her surviving the latest scandals gripping her agency. She absorbed a real battering from members in both parties, accused of hiding behind budget shortfalls, making luxury additions to her executive suites, ignoring security recommendations, and failing to make the culture change that so many thought her appointment in 2013 signaled.

She had to endure the indignity of Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., holding up the logo of ADT, asking her, "Have you ever heard of these guys?" He suggested that the Secret Service—long considered one of the preeminent security agencies in the world—could learn from ADT how to secure windows. And she had to sit there stoically while Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., told her, "You have done a disservice to the president of the United States" and "compromised" his security. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass, was particularly biting, telling her bluntly, "I wish to God that you protected the White House like you're protecting your reputation right now."

She had to sit there and take it as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, hammered her repeatedly for agents showing "restraint" when intruders vault the White House fence. There was no subtlety in Chaffetz's approach to security. He wants no "restraint." He wants a few of those jumpers shot. Dead. Another member wanted more shrubbery. More reasonably, another suggested a fence higher than the current 7'6" barrier installed in 1965.

Throughout it all, Pierson offered cautious, often-bureaucratic answers, never once during three and a half hours in the spotlight showing a flash of anger or passion, even as her competence was being questioned. No vote was taken, but it seemed clear that she could not today win a vote of confidence from Congress.

Luckily for her, she needs only one vote to keep her job. That vote belongs to Obama. That was never more evident than when he announced she was his choice on March 26, 2013. There is no appointment more personal to any president than that of the person who will be in charge of the safety of his family. It is why presidents themselves conduct the job interviews with contenders for the post.

According to one source familiar with the process this time, Pierson entered the interview process as a long shot. A former Orlando police officer, she joined the Secret Service in 1983, moving to the presidential protective division five years later. In 1992, she took the first of several positions in the Secret Service hierarchy, until she became chief of staff in 1988.

But she was not the favorite until she sat down with the president. According to the source, she "hit a home run" in her session with Obama. He was comfortable with her and comfortable entrusting his family's safety to her hands. "This person now probably has more control over our lives than anyone else, except for our spouses," he joked at the time of her swearing-in. "I could not be placing our lives in better hands than Julia's."

The degree to which the recent incidents have shaken that faith is unknown. Publicly, the president still states his trust in the Secret Service. But The Washington Post reported that first lady Michelle Obama was "aghast" and "furious" at the way Mark Sullivan, Pierson's predecessor, handled an incident in 2011 when a gunman fired several shots at the White House, some of which struck a window close to the family's dining room on the second floor.

Incidents like that one in 2011, along with embarrassing tales of prostitutes and drinking on foreign trips and the recent fence-jumper, also do great damage to something hard to measure—the mystique of the Secret Service as a formidable and respected department whose agents are willing to surrender their own lives to protect the president. At Tuesday's hearing, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa lamented the demise of that mystique. Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday morning, noted that all institutions in government have fallen in public regard. But, she contended, "almost no reputation has been damaged as much as that of the Secret Service."

The extent of the damage and the length of time it will take to regain that mystique are impossible to know. Pierson's battle is to persuade the president that she remains the right person to guide the Secret Service back to the top.

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