The beleaguered director of the Secret Service resigned Wednesday after President Obama lost confidence in her ability to lead the troubled agency amid a string of high-profile security lapses.
Julia A. Pierson, the first woman to hold the post, stepped down hours after an Army veteran who is accused of running into the White House with a knife on Sept. 19 pleaded not guilty to three criminal charges in federal court. The judge ordered him to undergo a mental evaluation.
Pierson, a 30-year Secret Service veteran, was named director only 18 months ago after a prostitution scandal and other problems suggested poor discipline and inadequate oversight in the supposedly elite force responsible for protecting the president, his family and visiting foreign leaders.
Fresh security breaches, and Pierson’s repeated stumbles during a combative House hearing Tuesday, led to growing calls in Congress for her resignation and Obama quickly agreed.
“Over the last several days, we’ve seen recent and accumulating reports raising questions about the performance of the agency, and the president concluded that new leadership of that agency was required,” said Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman.
In the latest potential threat, officials said, a private security guard armed with a pistol rode in an elevator with the president during a Sept. 16 visit to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for a briefing on Ebola, surprising Secret Service agents and violating agency rules over who can carry a weapon near him.
The gun was discovered only after agents complained the guard was acting oddly and had refused their request to stop using a cellphone camera to record the president in the elevator. Officials said they subsequently discovered the guard was a felon, with multiple convictions for assault and battery.
Earnest said the White House did not learn of the 2-week-old incident until “shortly before” news organizations reported the details Tuesday.
Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said he had appointed Joseph Clancy, who headed the Secret Service presidential protective unit before retiring in 2011, as acting director.
Clancy has worked the last three years as a senior executive for cable giant Comcast Corp.’s internal security division. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Villanova University, according to Comcast.
Johnson also said he had ordered his top deputy, Alejandro Mayorkas, to take charge of the internal Secret Service investigation of the Sept. 19 breach and report back by Nov. 1.
As House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and others in Congress called for an independent investigation of the agency, Johnson said he also would convene a panel of outside experts to recommend improvements to White House security and Secret Service operations. Their assessment is due Dec. 15.
The House Judiciary Committee will also hold hearings into the Secret Service next month, committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Pierson said it was painful to quit while the Secret Service was “reeling from a significant security breach.”
She said leaving was “the noble thing to do” and had decided to resign after meeting with Johnson and agreeing “we were at the point where it was going to be hard for the department and president to have confidence in the Secret Service leadership if I didn’t step down.”
In addition to protecting the president and vice president, former presidents and major presidential candidates, the Secret Service investigates counterfeiting of U.S. currency and Treasury securities.
Several senior Democrats joined Republicans in saying the next director should come from outside the agency’s insular culture.
“The Secret Service needs a seasoned law enforcement professional who is not a product of the Secret Service to bring about needed reforms,” Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) echoed calls for an independent congressional investigation.
“There has to be an independent investigation as to what is going on at the Secret Service,” she said at a news conference. “The protection of the president has to be precise, it has to be flawless, and there has to be accountability when that is not the case.”
Pierson’s departure won’t end congressional scrutiny of the agency, several lawmakers said.
“Problems at the Secret Service predate Ms. Pierson’s tenure as director, and her resignation certainly does not resolve them,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Pierson had been appointed after a 2012 scandal in which a dozen agents allegedly hired prostitutes in Colombia while preparing for a presidential trip, a 2011 shooting attack on the White House to which agents failed to respond, and a 2009 incident in which an uninvited couple attended a state dinner at the White House.
The latest uninvited visitor, Omar Gonzalez, 42, stared straight ahead and said nothing during a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington. He waived his right to a detention hearing, meaning he will remain in custody.
According to court papers and Pierson’s testimony in Congress, Gonzalez climbed over the north fence of the White House at 7:19 p.m. on Sept. 19, sprinted unimpeded across the lawn and opened a glass door and a wooden door in the North Portico.
He then allegedly knocked over an agent inside the door and wrestled with guards who chased him into the East Room before he was finally subdued outside the Green Room. Obama had taken off in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, moments earlier.
During her grilling on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Pierson struggled to explain why agents failed to stop Gonzalez before he entered the executive mansion, why an alarm was muted and why the agency did not acknowledge for more than a week that he had forced his way deep inside before he was tackled. She also said agents did not install automatic locks on the front door until after the incident.
Lawmakers from both parties criticized her and her aides for giving misleading or inaccurate information about the incident. Some accused her of being evasive in her answers, and her support quickly evaporated.
During Gonzalez’s 30-minute court hearing, Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson ordered him to undergo a mental evaluation to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. She acknowledged that neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers had sought the evaluation.
David Bos, the public defender assigned to represent Gonzalez, insisted his client was prepared to proceed.
“There is no basis to believe Mr. Gonzalez is not competent to stand trial,” Bos said. “It’s so clear that this is not appropriate.”
Bos vowed to file a motion challenging the judge’s order.
Although Secret Service officials initially said the intruder was unarmed, he carried a black folding knife with a 3 1/2-inch serrated blade in his pocket, the agency later acknowledged.
Investigators also found he had hundreds of rounds of ammunition for shotguns, pistols and rifles in his car, which was parked nearby. According to court papers, he does not hold a valid registration certificate for a firearm.
After his arrest, Gonzalez told agents that “he was concerned the atmosphere was collapsed” and he needed to get the information to Obama, according to a Secret Service affidavit.
Gonzalez faces a federal charge of entering a restricted building while carrying a deadly weapon, and District of Columbia charges of carrying a dangerous weapon outside home or business, and unlawful possession of ammunition. If convicted, he could face 16 years in prison.