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Obama security lapses: US secret service chief quits

The trust was shaken by a series of failures in the agency's critical job of protecting the president, including a breach on September 19, when a knife-carrying man climbed over the White House fence

world Updated: Oct 02, 2014 16:53 IST
US Secret Service

The director of Secret Service Julia Pierson abruptly resigned Wednesday in the face of multiple revelations of security breaches, bumbling in her agency and rapidly eroding confidence that President Barack Obama and his family were being kept safe.

Once highly respected for its professionalism, the Secret Service, which protects the president, his family, the vice president and former presidents, has been trying to rehabilitate its image since a 2012 prostitution scandal erupted during a presidential visit to Colombia.

US secret service director Julia Pierson testifies at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Reuters)

That trust was shaken by a series of failures in the agency's critical job of protecting the president, including a breach on September 19, when a knife-carrying man climbed over the White House fence and made it deep into the executive mansion before being stopped.

President Barack Obama "concluded new leadership of that agency was required," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

A White House official told The Associated Press that the final straw was the revelation that Obama was never briefed about an incident in which he rode an elevator with an armed security contractor during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta just days before the White House breach.

Although Pierson offered her resignation without being asked, Obama had already told aides he thought she should go, the official said, adding that nobody put up any resistance when she offered to step down.

The official was not authorized to discuss the issue and requested anonymity.

High-ranking lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties had urged Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to step down after her poorly received testimony to Congress a day earlier - and revelation of yet another security problem: Obama had shared an elevator in Atlanta last month with an armed guard who was not authorized to be around him.

That appeared to be the last straw that crumbled trust in her leadership in the White House. Earnest said Obama and his staff did not learn about that breach until just before it was made public in news reports Tuesday.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Joseph Clancy, retired head of the agency's Presidential Protective Division, would come out of retirement to lead the Secret Service temporarily.

Taking further steps to restore trust in the beleaguered agency, Johnson also outlined an independent inquiry into the agency's operations.

Republicans quickly served notice that Pierson's resignation and the inquiry ordered by Johnson would not end their investigation.

"Problems at the Secret Service pre-date Ms. Pierson's tenure as director, and her resignation certainly does not resolve them," said Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

In an interview with Bloomberg after her resignation was announced, Pierson said, "It's painful to leave as the agency is reeling from a significant security breach."

"Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency," she said. "The media has made it clear that this is what they expected."

She said she met Johnson on Wednesday and "after that discussion I felt this was the noble thing to do." She added that her departure would "take pressure off the organization."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican and a leader of the congressional inquiry, called her resignation "the right thing to do, it had to happen, but there are some systemic challenges that must be addressed."

Some revelations came from whistleblowers who contacted Chaffetz, and he suggested more damaging stories may emerge. "Unfortunately there are more out there and we'll see how that goes," he said.

After a congressional hearing Tuesday into the Sept. 19 breach and an earlier one, reports emerged of still another. The Atlanta elevator incident was the first known Secret Service failure to unfold in the presence of the president. The first family was not at the White House when the recent intruder entered.

The White House learned about the Atlanta episode only about when lawmakers and the public did - when the Washington Examiner and The Washington Post reported it, Earnest said.

Obama had not been told about it previously, Earnest said. This, despite Pierson's statement to the committee that she briefs the president "100 percent of the time" about threats to his personal security and those at the White House. She said the only time she had briefed him this year was after the Sept. 19 White House intrusion.

The man accused of running into the White House on Sept. 19, Omar J. Gonzalez, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in a brief appearance in federal court. He is accused of unlawfully entering a restricted building while carrying a deadly weapon, which is a federal charge, and two violations of District of Columbia law - carrying a dangerous weapon outside a home or business and unlawful possession of ammunition.

Wearing a standard prison-issue orange jump suit, Gonzalez sat attentively at the defense table but did not address the court as his lawyer entered the plea.

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