Protecting the president

Secret Service chief Julia Pierson resigned Wednesday after a series of security breaches.
Secret Service chief Julia Pierson resigned Wednesday after a series of security breaches.

Julia Pierson’s job as head of the Secret Service was in jeopardy the moment an intruder made it past the front door of the White House. The belated disclosure that he went deep into the interior of the mansion before an agent tackled him made her resignation inevitable.

Ms. Pierson was given the task of fixing what was wrong with the agency when she was appointed director in March 2013. Evidently, the existing problems proved too deep and too ingrained for her, and perhaps anyone else in the agency, to handle. Her departure is a necessary first step in the process of restoring the Secret Service’s professionalism and reputation as the premier agency in the world tasked with protecting a head of state.

The White House intrusion last Friday by Omar J. Gonzalez, who pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, may be the most dramatic and egregious example of failure by the Secret Service during the time President Obama has been in office. But it’s certainly not the only one.

From prostitution scandals to repeated failures to follow protection protocols — even, on one occasion, an inability to realize that shots had been fired at the White House until days after the event! — the Secret Service has displayed a shocking pattern of of dysfunction, an absence of professionalism that puts the president and everyone else requiring protection in jeopardy.

America’s foes are capable of meticulous planning and cold-blooded execution. We saw that on 9/11. They can spot vulnerability and figure out how to pick apart our defenses. If an intruder armed with a knife can get as far as he did, what would happen if the White House came under assault by organized terrorists? Many Americans, including members of Congress from both parties, are right to ask whether the Secret Service is up to the job these days.

Throughout all this, the loyalty and dedication of agents willing to take a bullet for the president and those they are sworn to protect has never been questioned. Nor should it. This is a management problem, as displayed by Ms. Pierson herself.

After the intruder made it into the White House, she commented that the uniformed agents showed great restraint in not firing. Is that the proper response to an assault on the White House — restraint? When agents failed to notice that bullets had been fired into the White House until a maid spotted broken glass days later, she commented that it was dark when the shooting happened.

The fact that whistleblowers inside the agency have felt more comfortable taking their complaints to members of Congress rather than to their superiors reflects a failure of management and a lack of trust in the managers, as well as poor morale. Other recent disclosures are equally telling, like shutting off the alarm on the White House door because an usher complained. The job requires alertness and attention to detail. This suggests incompetence and an appalling lack of focus.

The agency’s new leader must command the respect of the agents. He or she must be familiar with security procedures, yet not tainted by past mistakes and the culture of laxity that has overtaken the Secret Service. That probably means an outsider.

The urgency of finding the right person cannot be overestimated. Given the agency’s repeated miscues (allowing an armed civilian contractor to ride an elevator with the president), the president and others under Secret Service protection have been fortunate. But good luck doesn’t last forever.