WASHINGTON (AP) — One lesson from Julia Pierson’s short tenure as director of the agency that protects the first family: The Secret Service can’t keep secrets from the president.
Pierson’s undoing was not telling the president about a Sept. 16 incident in Atlanta in which President Barack Obama rode an elevator with an armed security contractor during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two White House officials said. The armed contractor’s proximity to Obama violated the agency’s security protocols.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson as well as Obama appeared unaware of the full extent of the Atlanta incident and the Sept. 19 security breach in which a man armed with a knife jumped the White House fence and entered the building. Johnson, whose department oversees the Secret Service, was the driving force behind Pierson’s resignation Wednesday, the officials said.
Since taking office last year Johnson had made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate even a whiff of scandal. He had repeatedly expressed concern about the Secret Service performance in the wake of the White House intruder, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the issue by name and requested anonymity.
“In light of recent and accumulating reports about the agency, I think legitimate questions were raised — at least they were in the mind of both the secretary and the president,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The White House learned about the Atlanta incident just before details of the encounter were published by two newspapers. In a meeting with Johnson, Pierson offered her resignation without being asked, but Obama had already told aides he thought she should go. No one put up any resistance when she offered to step down, officials said.
She told lawmakers she could not explain why the agency issued conflicting statements on whether the accused intruder was armed — court records say he had a 3-inch serrated folding knife — and how far into the building he got. Omar Gonzalez was arrested and accused of running into the East Room, well beyond the unlocked front door he was believed to have entered.
“I wish to God you protected the White House like you protected your reputation here today,” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch told Pierson at the hearing.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and senior member of the committee who knew about the Atlanta incident before Obama, called for her ouster Tuesday night. After she resigned, he said, “It was the right thing to do, it had to happen, but there are some systemic challenges that must be addressed.”
Pierson wasn’t the first Obama administration official to deal with a scandal, but how she handled it contrasts starkly with others, including her immediate predecessor, Mark J. Sullivan.
Sullivan almost immediately suspended, fired or transferred implicated officers and agents in the immediate aftermath of a 2012 made-for-the-tabloids prostitution scandal in Colombia. He also quickly changed the rules governing employee behavior during work trips.
Pierson said Tuesday that personnel actions were pending.
Her departure wasn’t likely to end criticism of the agency. Lawmakers have called for an outside review and Johnson has put Deputy DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the department’s general counsel in charge of the Secret Service investigation.