Yes, indeed, ‘mistakes were made’

WASHINGTON — Julia Pierson is really putting “secret” into the Secret Service.

First, her agency declared that the White House fence jumper who made it all the way into the Executive Mansion was unarmed; turned out later that he had a knife.

Then the agency said the jumper was subdued as soon as he entered through the North Portico. Now we learn, from The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig, that he led agents on a dance into the East Room and outside the Green Room.

At this rate of disclosure, we may soon learn that the jumper stopped in the Oval Office and signed a few executive orders while talking to Vladimir Putin on the red telephone.

Leonnig, in another blockbuster, reported over the weekend that the Secret Service covered up details of a 2011 incident in which shots were fired at the White House. Hidden from the people and their representatives: that the shots posed a potential danger to members of President Obama’s family and that it took the Secret Service four days to realize that bullets had hit the White House residence — and then only because a housekeeper found broken glass. Pierson was Secret Service chief of staff at the time.

The combination of these lapses, and the added insult that lawmakers learned about them from the Post, led members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday to direct a stream of insults at Pierson and her agency.

“Stunning.” “Profoundly inadequate.” “Absolutely disgraceful.” “Outrageous.” “Just mind-boggling.” “Gross neglect.”

Pierson, hunched, her forearms on the witness table, did not dispute these comments. But she argued that the fence-jumping episode was an aberration and not evidence of deeper problems. She claimed the agency had improved its culture during her 18 months at the top.

“This incident is an operational incident,” she told the lawmakers, who had returned from recess to hold the hearing. “Although it’s being addressed as it’s very similar or a side effect of some of the other cultural problems, I looked at this as a strict tactical concern. … Mistakes were made, and the proper protocols were not followed.”

Yes, mistakes were made, including Pierson’s use of that Watergate-era phrase — three times.

Pierson’s bigger mistake, and the one that might force a bigger shake-up on the Secret Service than she intends: her failure to grasp the larger problem. The first woman to lead the elite law enforcement squad, she was brought in to change the frat-house culture seen in the 2012 Cartagena prostitution scandal and, earlier this year, in drunkenness episodes in Miami and Amsterdam. She claims to have improved that problem but she’s now allowing an equally pernicious culture to flourish — a culture of concealment and cover-up.

The agency’s failure to come clean about the details of the 2011 incident and the recent fence-jumping caper makes it look as if Secret Service secrecy is not meant to protect the president’s life but to protect an arrogant agency from embarrassment and reform.

Lawmakers offered various unhelpful remedies to patch White House security. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed a higher, curved fence with “multilayered glass.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, suggested agents shoot to kill. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., proposed “vegetation barriers” such as “Spanish bayonets.” He then held up the octagonal emblem of security firm ADT. “Ever heard of these guys?” he asked Pierson. “You could subscribe.”

Pierson defended herself with bureaucratic phrases about “robust conversations” and “comprehensive reviews” and “the totality of the circumstances.” She sounded at times like a sheriff’s deputy reading police reports.

About the 2011 incident, she said: “The vehicle sped away and went westbound on Constitution, erratically driving and struck a light post in the area of 23rd and Constitution.”

About this month’s episode, she recounted: “They stepped momentarily into the East Room. Another officer rendered aid, and he was placed on the ground … “

As problematic as her answers was her passionless delivery. “I don’t sense from you, Director Pierson, a sense of outrage,” observed Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “A sense of mission that you want to reform and correct this cascading set of mistakes that led to, potentially, a catastrophe.”

Pierson’s mild reply: “I’m sorry you don’t get that sense from me.”

Then on Wednesday, she resigned.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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