WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday named veteran Secret Service agent Julia Pierson as the agency’s first female director, signaling his desire to change the culture at the male-dominated service, which has been marred by scandal.
Pierson, who served as the agency’s chief of staff, will take over from Mark Sullivan, who announced his retirement last month. The agency faced intense criticism during Sullivan’s tenure for a prostitution scandal during preparations for Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, last year.
The incident raised questions within the agency — as well as at the White House and on Capitol Hill — about the culture, particularly during foreign travel. In addition to protecting the president, the Secret Service also investigates financial crimes.
‘‘Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day,’’ Obama said in a statement announcing Pierson’s appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation.
At the Secret Service, Pierson has also served as deputy assistant director of the office of protective operations and assistant director of human resources and training. She started in 1983 as a special agent in Miami. Before that, she was a police officer in Orlando.
Thirteen Secret Service employees were caught up in last year’s prostitution scandal. After a night of heavy partying in the Caribbean resort city of Cartagena, the employees brought women, including prostitutes, to the hotel where they were staying.
Eight of the employees were forced out of the agency and three were cleared of serious misconduct. The service said the president’s safety was never compromised.
WASHINGTON — An Oscar-nominated documentary on the subject of sexual assaults in the US military has catapulted the issue to higher prominence, while providing greater visibility for the Massachusetts congresswoman who has a role in the film, Representative Niki Tsongas.
Tsongas will host a panel discussion and a viewing of “The Invisible War,” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Tufts University. The Lowell Democrat makes a short appearance in the film during a scene where she moderates a discussion among female survivors of sexual assault in the military.
Tsongas labored for several years in Congress to shed light on the issue. Legislation she cosponsored became law last year, allowing victims of sexual assault to request a base transfer, legal counsel, and a confidential advocate.
She said in an interview that she became aware of the problem as a new member of Congress in 2007, when she met a female soldier who told her she carried a knife in her belt when walking around base to protect herself from unwanted advances. “She told me, ‘I am more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy,’ ” said Tsongas.
Tsongas teamed up with Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, to push the legislation. In the Senate, they gained the assistance of then-Senator John F. Kerry.
“Our goal is to create a system where survivors are far more comfortable speaking out and where those who are truly guilty are found guilty,” said Tsongas.
“The Invisible War’’ documents the lives of men and women who say they were assaulted and often denied adequate justice from military courts. A 2011 report from the Department of Defense reported 2,723 victims of sexual assault, and advocates say the number would be higher if victims were not intimidated.
The film’s director, Kirby Dick, said the actions taken by Congress and the Pentagon are a step in the right direction, but do not go far enough. Based on interviews he conducted with victims, Dick believes the authority to prosecute such cases must fall to a person outside of the chain of command of both victim and perpetrator.
“Most victims feel they won’t get justice because there will be a conflict of interest,” Dick said.
He nonetheless applauded Tsongas for making the issue bipartisan . “Two years ago, when we were making this film, there weren’t a lot of people speaking out about this in Congress. Tsongas was one of the few,” Dick said.
VERMILLION, S.D. — Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota confirmed Tuesday that he would retire at the end of his term next year, acknowledging he remains limited by the lingering effects of a 2006 brain hemorrhage and wants to spend more time with his grandchildren.
Appearing in his hometown of Vermillion, Johnson made it official he will not seek a fourth term. The hemorrhage has slowed his speech and required him to use a motorized scooter.
‘‘I feel great, but I must be honest, I appreciate my right arm and right leg aren’t what they used to be, and my speech is not entirely there,’’ said Johnson, 66.
Former governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, had announced plans last year to challenge Johnson, who is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.