October 16, 2021

House hearing hits Secret Service culture following failures at White House

U.S. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson (C) takes her seat to testify at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on “White House Perimeter Breach: New Concerns about the Secret Service” on Capitol Hill in Washington September 30, 2014. At left, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) shakes hands with the other two witnesses Todd Keil (2nd R) and Ralph Basham (R). REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Julia A. Pierson might need more than a bulletproof vest to protect her job security as Secret Service director after the shots she took from members of Congress Tuesday.

She was called to Capitol Hill  in the wake of an outrageous that allowed a man with a knife to jump the White House fence, dash 70 yards across the north lawn and then, incredibly, go well into the mansion.

Her answers left both Republicans and Democrats angry and dissatisfied. After the hearing, her future seemed in doubt, despite the confidence President Obama has expressed in her.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wanted to know not only about operational procedures, but also about the culture of an agency that seemed to be the epitome of pride not too long ago.

“A history of misbehavior and security failures, however, has blemished this trust…” said  Chairman (R-Calif.). “In light of the recent break-in, we have to ask whether the culture at the Secret Service and declining morale have impacted operational security.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, as Secret Service Director Julia Pierson answers questions about the security breach at the White House when a man climbed over a fence, sprinted across the north lawn and dash deep into the executive mansion before finally being subdued. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Poor morale can hurt operations in any agency, but Pierson wouldn’t discuss operational security details in open session. She did talk about her efforts to improve the culture by meeting with employees and supervisors and their training programs.

Signalling her intention to stay in office, Pierson said: “I intend over the coming months to redouble my efforts, not only in response to this incident, but in general to bring the Secret Service to a level of performance that lives up to the vital mission we perform, the important individuals we protect, and the American people we serve.”

If the fence jumper wasn’t enough to dirty the agency’s reputation, details of a , first disclosed by my colleague Carol Leonnig, certainly were.

In that case, before Pierson became director, the Secret Service didn’t even know the White House had been hit by gunfire until days later. The top Democrat on the committee was incredulous.

“What concerns me most about this report is that agents said they were hesitant to raise security concerns with their supervisors,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.)

That gets to a key concern of federal whistleblowers across the government — the fear of punishment from managers for reporting things that are not right in the workplace. That fear was repeatedly raised in the recent Department of Veterans Affairs scandal over the cover-up of patient wait times and it has been found in many other federal agencies.

The fear is real and documented.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) waved an inspector general’s report that cited a showing just how widespread the fear is in the Secret Service. Only 55.8 percent of the employees agreed they “can report a suspected violation of any law, rule, regulation, or standards of conduct without fear of retaliation.”