Yet another security lapse final straw for US secret service director

Embattled Pierson resigns after gun found on man in lift with Obama

Julia Pierson: resigned as US secret service director  following a series of major security breaches around President Barack Obama. Photograph:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Julia Pierson: resigned as US secret service director following a series of major security breaches around President Barack Obama. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


The latest revelation exposing another security breach on the US secret service’s watch – that a private contractor armed with a gun accompanied President Barack Obama in a lift on a recent visit to Atlanta – spelt the end of embattled director Julia Pierson’s time in charge.

Coming almost two weeks after an Iraq war veteran, possessing a knife, scaled a fence at the White House and managed to make it inside the building, the news of another lapse in security around the president three days earlier was enough to force Pierson’s resignation on Wednesday afternoon.

Obama’s daughters

He was eventually apprehended by an off-duty secret service agent.

Gonzalez had run past a stairway leading to the Obama family’s residence. The guard who tackled the intruder had been part of the staff watching Obama’s daughters and had just seen the family leave the White House by helicopter minutes before the incident.

Pierson, the first female director of the secret service with 30 years’ experience in the agency, admitted before a House of Representatives panel that the agency’s response to the unprecedented breach of security was “unacceptable and will never happen again”.

Aroused concerns

Jason Chaffetz

It wasn’t. Hours later, the Atlanta lift incident was reported in the Washington Post and the Washington Examiner, along with the disclosure that Obama had not been informed of the security lapse.

The president had been visiting the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on September 16th to discuss the US response to the Ebola crisis when a security contractor aroused the concerns of secret service agents when he did not respond to orders to stop video recording Obama on his camera phone in the lift.

After the president stepped out, some secret service officers remained behind to question the man. They later found he had three convictions for assault and battery. Agents only became aware he was armed when he was sacked on the spot and handed over his gun.

Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the White House first learned of the September 16th incident on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before it was reported in the media.

The previous day Earnest told reporters that the president had “full confidence in Director Pierson and other members of the secret service to do their very important work”. The Atlanta breach was the final straw.

“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,” Earnest said at Wednesday’s daily press briefing.

But controversy has plagued the secret service for far more than the last few days. Pierson was herself appointed last year in response to incidents that questioned the agency’s ability to defend the president.

In November 2009, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, stars of reality TV show Real Housewives of DC, managed to slip through two secret service security checkpoints to gatecrash a White House state dinner for India’s prime minister and mingle with US vice-president Joe Biden and senior members of the Obama administration.

Two years later, a gunman parked south of the White House and fired seven bullets at the Obama family’s residence.

Tarnished reputation

In 2012, a dozen secret service agents on an advance team preparing for Obama’s visit to Colombia for a summit were found to have been drinking heavily and taking prostitutes to their rooms in an embarrassing incident that tarnished the agency’s reputation.

For Pierson’s successor, the Obama administration has picked a man with first-hand experience of protecting the president. Joseph Clancy, a former secret service agent who ran the agency’s presidential protective division, has been named interim director of the agency.

Still, questions remain about the security around what Congressman Stephen Lynch said on Tuesday was “supposed to be one of the most secure buildings in the country if not the world”.