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Secret Service director resigns after harsh bipartisan criticism

Julia Pierson drew outcry over lapses

At a hearing Tuesday, Julia Pierson (left) said President Obama had been apprised of a series of threats that took place this year. It was subsequently revealed that was not the case.Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Secret Service director Julia Pierson resigned Wednesday after a series of disclosures that her agency had repeatedly failed in its number one job — the protection of the president and his family — causing lawmakers and the White House to lose confidence in her.

The announcement came one day after lawmakers at a Capitol Hill hearing blasted Pierson for a Sept. 19 incident in which a man armed with a knife jumped over the White House fence, entered the building, and advanced as far as the East Room before an off-duty agent tackled him.

"The president concluded that new leadership of that agency was required," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

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A number of other lapses also were disclosed this week by the Washington Post, including a slow-footed response to a 2011 shooting at the White House.

At the congressional hearing Tuesday, Pierson said she had briefed President Obama about every security breach this year — only to have it revealed separately that she had not told the president that he had recently ridden an elevator with a contractor who was carrying a gun.

The elevator incident appeared to seal Pierson's fate. She abruptly resigned Wednesday afternoon, telling Bloomberg News: "Congress has lost confidence in my ability to run the agency. The media has made it clear that this is what they expected."

Obama named Pierson to the agency's top post 18 months ago in an attempt to turn the agency's image around following a prostitution scandal. She was the first female director of the agency, in which she had served for 30 years.

Mistakes and scandals have plagued the Secret Service for much of Obama's time in office. In November 2009 a Virginia couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, were able to enter Obama's first state dinner, an event honoring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. At the time, Michaele Salahi was auditioning for a role in "The Real Housewives of Washington" television series. It was later reported that proper procedures were not followed when she and her husband passed through a security checkpoint.

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In November 2011, as the Washington Post first reported this week, a man opened fire on the White House from a parked car, then fled the scene. The Secret Service did not realize that at least seven bullets had hit the mansion until a housekeeper found broken glass days later.

The Post said that Obama and his wife were out of town the night of the shooting, but that their younger daughter and Michelle Obama's mother were home. Their older daughter was expected back at about the time the shooting occurred.

A second fence has been added to the White House perimeter.Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In April 2012, it was revealed that Secret Service agents in Colombia, doing work in advance of a presidential visit, had hired prostitutes, a scandal that prompted several hearings and investigations. The Secret Service's director, Mark Sullivan, retired amid the controversy, and Pierson was given the job with the mission of reforming the agency.

Obama hailed her at the time as exemplifying the agency's "spirit and dedication," calling her "eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own."

But evidence shows that the system of protection had broken down on Sept. 19, when an Army veteran of the Iraq war, Omar Gonzalez, allegedly jumped the White House fence and ran inside the executive mansion.

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Army veteran Omar Gonzalez was able to breach security at the White House.NEW VALLEY RIVER REGIONAL JAIL

The Secret Service initially said that Gonzalez had been stopped at the front door. But the Washington Post subsequently reported that the White House's alarm system was muted, preventing the agent at the door from being alerted to the intruder. Gonzalez then ran down a corridor and into the ceremonial East Room before being subdued.

Obama had left the White House just minutes earlier.

The fact that Gonzalez had made it so far gave rise to fears that a team of armed terrorists might try to replicate the intrusion. That led to calls on Capitol Hill for an independent investigation of what happened in the Gonzalez incident.

Among Pierson's most vocal critics at Tuesday's hearing was Representative Stephen Lynch, the South Boston Democrat. "I wish to God you protected the White House like you're protecting your reputation here today," Lynch told Pierson.

Lynch took a more restrained tone in the wake of Pierson's resignation, issuing a statement in which he called it the "right decision" for the Secret Service and thanking her for her service.

Pierson had said at Tuesday's hearing that she took full responsibility for the security lapses. But members of the committee, who already felt misled about the extent of the Gonzalez intrusion, were further angered when they learned that the Secret Service had not informed Obama that he had ridden on an elevator on Sept. 16 with an armed man who had a criminal record.

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Earnest said the White House did not learn of that incident until just before it was reported by the Post on Tuesday.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said on CNN on Wednesday that he believed there had been a cover-up.

"I worry the director herself was involved, and that she did know about it," Chaffetz said.

The Secret Service in recent days installed automatic locks on the White House doors and placed a second, lower fence around the perimeter of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Gonzalez pleaded not guilty to three charges related to the intrusion in federal court on Wednesday. He is due in court again on Oct. 21.

The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday that Joseph Clancy,who previously served as head of the Secret Service's presidential protection division before going into the private sector, had agreed to become the agency's interim director until a replacement can be found.

More coverage:

Editorial: Resignation won't fix Secret Service


Cat Zakrzewski can be reached at cat.zakrzewski@globe.com.