The US Secret Service director resigned on Wednesday, paying the price for a string of security lapses by the elite presidential protection branch, including one in which an armed intruder ran into the White House.
Julia Pierson stepped down a day after enduring a withering public grilling by lawmakers, who pronounced themselves baffled at failures by Secret Service agents, another of which saw an armed former felon get on an elevator with US President Barack Obama.
Pierson had been brought into the agency as a new broom after the reputation of its sharp-suited agents took a hit from drinking and prostitution scandals, but she leaves with the Secret Service facing searching questions from critics who have even warned that the lives of the president and his family are not safe, due to several high-profile failures.
Bowing to rising political pressure, Pierson offered her resignation and it was accepted by US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Johnson appointed Joseph Clancy — who formerly headed the presidential protection branch of the Secret Service as an interim replacement.
An independent panel will be named to probe a Sept. 19 incident, which saw knife-carrying homeless US Army veteran Omar Gonzalez allegedly jump the White House fence and run into the residence.
Gonzalez pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to three counts, including unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon.
In another incident last month, an armed security contractor with a criminal record was allowed into an elevator with Obama when he visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.
In another eye-opening development, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday said that the presidency had only been made aware of the full circumstances of the Atlanta incident shortly before it appeared in a report on Tuesday.
Pierson’s sullen performance before angry lawmakers on Tuesday did little to shield her agency.
“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” Pierson said of the Sept. 19 intrusion. “This is unacceptable and I take full responsibility, and I will make sure that it does not happen again.”
Following the hearing, Pierson was besieged by calls for her departure by angry lawmakers.
Leading Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said that the administration had done the right thing by bringing new leadership to the Secret Service.
“The series of breaches has been serious and hard to explain. They need to get to the bottom of it quickly and fortunately this process has now begun,” he said.
The White House said that Obama, who says he has full confidence in the agents who protect him, called Pierson on Wednesday afternoon to thank her for 30 years of dedicated service.
The Gonzalez incident and the elevator breach proved to be catalysts for Pierson’s departure.
The 42-year-old Iraq veteran’s intrusion triggered widespread incredulity, with lawmakers demanding to know how someone could scale an iron fence, race 70m across a lawn, enter an unlocked White House front door, knock down an agent and run into the East Room without being stopped.
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