'The Secret Service Is Beset by a Culture of Complacency and Incompetence'

Director Julia Pierson resigns amid bipartisan furor.

Secret Service director Julia Pierson. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, resigned on Wednesday, bowing to bipartisan pressure following a series of embarrassing security breaches.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced her departure in a statement, saying he appointed a retired senior Secret Service official, Joseph Clancy, to serve as interim acting director of the once-elite force. He added he was naming an independent panel of experts to review the agency and submit recommendations for reform by December 15. "I will also request that the panel advise me about whether it believes, given the series of recent events, there should be a review of broader issues concerning the Secret Service," Johnson said. "The security of the White House compound should be the panel’s primary and immediate priority."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama called Pierson to thank her for her service on Wednesday and that the president agreed with her assessment that a change in leadership was "in the best interests" of the Secret Service. Clancy had served as special agent in charge of the presidential protection division of the Secret Service and resigned in 2011, Johnson said. Earnest said at the White House that Clancy "has the full confidence of the president and the first lady."

If nothing else, the humiliations of the Secret Service had succeeded in bringing together two warring parties just one month before the midterm elections, as congressional leaders joined in rare agreement on Wednesday in calling for an independent investigation and demanding Pierson's ouster.

"The more we discover, the clearer it becomes that the Secret Service is beset by a culture of complacency and incompetence," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. The Ohio Republican voiced support for a proposal from Representative Michael McCaul for a "top-to-bottom, independent review of the agency."

Boehner's statement came a day after Pierson inspired little confidence among lawmakers with her appearance before the House oversight committee. Pierson struggled to explain how a knife-wielding Iraq War veteran could dash through an unlocked front door and deep into the White House after jumping a fence on Pennsylvania Avenue on Sept. 19. She also faced withering criticism over an incident before her tenure, in which the Secret Service did not realize for several days that a gunman had hit the White House with seven bullets from a semiautomatic rifle in 2011.

Topping off a dreadful day for Pierson, news broke hours after her testimony that yet another security breach occurred in September when the Secret Service allowed an armed contractor with a violent criminal history to ride an elevator, without authorization, with the president during a visit to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

In what may have been the final straw for the president, Earnest acknowledged that the White House was not aware of the elevator incident until shortly before news outlets reported it on Tuesday.

Pierson had taken "full responsibility" for the fence-jumping incident and vowed not to let it happen again, but her dispassionate demeanor frustrated lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The top Democrat on the committee, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe that he was so disturbed by her testimony that he couldn't sleep. "I’ve come to the conclusion that my confidence and my trust in this director, Ms. Pierson, has eroded," Cummings said, "and I do not feel comfortable with her in that position." Cummings later clarified in a Twitter post that he was not calling on Pierson explicitly to resign, but the damage of his statement was done.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, offered no backing for Pierson at a press conference in the Capitol, saying she would support Cummings's judgement if he thought the director should go. Other lawmakers calling for Pierson's ouster following the hearing included Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a senior Republican on the oversight committee, and Senator John McCain.

The White House stood by her on Tuesday afternoon, but that was before the news broke about the elevator incident and before she appeared to lose the support of leaders in the president's own party.

What was unique about the response from both parties was not their shared outrage, but the lack of any apparent partisan sniping that usually accompanies even the most apolitical scandals. As The New York Times noted on Wednesday, Republicans have an interest in highlighting the lapsing as part of their efforts to paint the Obama administration as incompetent, while Democrats have long voiced concern about the unprecedented level of threats that have been made against the nation's first black president.

But in a country where the scars have yet to fully heal from the last presidential assassination more than a half century ago, fears of the next one may have forged–however tentatively–a genuine bipartisan moment.