The White House announced that Julia Pierson, the first woman to head the Secret Service in its nearly 150-years of operation, resigned her post in the wake of a series of stunning agency blunders that put the First family’s lives in danger. (And if you think she actually “resigned,” as the press release called it, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.)
Ousting her was the first of many crisis management moves the agency needs to take in order to shore up its badly-damaged image and restore a sense of confidence, competence and protection for which it used to be known and admired. But make no mistake, Pierson’s biggest blunder – and the one that contributed much to her swift downfall – was her stupefyingly lackluster testimony before Congress the other day. She hardly seemed phased by the universal, aisle-crossing emotional outpourings of condemnation emanating from hot under the collar Representatives at the House Oversight hearing. She showed no apparent signs of having been properly briefed, drilled and rehearsed before her testimony – the job of experienced crisis communicators. Where – nay, who – are they?
As I have said many times, in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. And in this case, the perception is that Julia Pierson was in way over her head and her abilities and never should have been given the job in the first place. This will be a serious setback for women for years to come, but that’s a topic for another article.
The agency’s recent string of problems began as far back as 2011 when seven gunshots pierced an upstairs window in the residence quarters of the White House. The gunshots were heard, but erroneously dismissed as a car backfiring. Really? Backfiring seven times? The bullet holes went unnoticed for four days, until a member of the housekeeping staff spotted broken glass on the floor, and only then saw the holes in the window panes. The following year, there was the embarrassing episode of a bunch of agents “partying” with hookers in Cartagena, Columbia.
To be fair, these incidents occurred before Pierson’s tenure as chief began, although she was Chief of Staff at the time. But one of her primary missions when she was appointed to run the vaunted agency by the President in 2013 was to take firm charge of the service, get rid it of its frat boy image, and get it back in shape. On that score she went 0 for 3.
The current headline-grabbing fiasco deals with the White House intruder and the attempted whitewash – okay, outright lies – that surrounded it. The first official announcement was that the intruder had been quickly stopped outside of the South Portico entrance to the White House, also known as the President’s Back Door. But, that was not just wrong, it was a blatant attempt to mislead the public, because before that statement was prepared it was already known by the Secret Service that the intruder had made it well into the White House, barreled past and bowled over a uniformed female agent, ran past the stairs leading directly to the private quarters of the first family, and who knows how much further he would have gotten had he not ultimately been tackled in the East Room by an off-duty agent.
The statement also said initially that the intruder was unarmed. False: he had been carrying a knife.
Did Pierson authorize that woefully inaccurate statement? There are two possibilities: First, she knew the true facts and directed the misleading statement be issued. Why? To cover her own ass. Or, second, the incident took place and she was not aware of the extent of the intrusion and the actual danger to the first family and others within the White House. If that scenario is true, it speaks volumes as to level of her incompetence.
Incredulously, the incident also revealed that the Secret Service had muted the alarm that is supposed to sound when an intruder breaches the doors. Why? It seemed the Usher’s office – essentially the housekeeping staff – requested it be muted because the alarm was so loud and it kept going off and disturbing them.
Did it never occur to someone at the agency to question exactly why the alarm kept sounding? Maybe there was a reason. Maybe there were other intruders. Whose to say in the face of such an atmosphere of uncertainty and unprofessionalism engulfing the agency today?
More to the point, since when does the housekeeping staff direct or alter established security protocol put in place by the Secret Service?
And whatever happened to armed Marines at the door? Didn’t that used to be de rigueur?
The last incident to come to light was a visit POTUS made to the CDC in the wake of the Ebola crisis. Riding up in the elevator with him was an armed man with an arrest record. This, Pierson not only kept from the public, but from the President as well.
So, ousting her is a no-brainer. But where does the agency go from here to get its credibility back?
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, has appointed Joe Clancy as interim director. Clancy used to head Obama’s security detail. But that’s not enough. One of the underlying problems at the agency – and one that Pierson was specifically tasked with cleaning up – was the frat boy nature of the service. To do that, they need to bring in an outsider. And the first order of business after making sure the President and his family are properly being protected, is a thorough house cleaning. And it is always easier for an outsider to wield the axe than one of the “good ol’ boys.”
There are other changes that have to be made in terms of security protocols and at the appropriate time – maybe six months from now – those changes have to be communicated to Congress and maybe the public…provided that doing so does not jeopardize the President’s safety. This will be a delicate balancing act, and an exercise in proper crisis communications. The sorts of things that can and should be highlighted are those that will become obvious anyway, such as physical changes in the White House perimeter. Other things that must be kept from the public could be explained to a trusted newsperson, who could report on his knowledge of added security measures without revealing them. Again, crisis communications.
It was gratifying to see Republicans and Democrats on the House Oversight Committee walking and talking in lock step and without partisan rancor. But at what cost?
Fortunately, the Secret Service blunders have only caused a crisis and not caused a loss of any lives. Let’s hope it stays that way.