Julia Pierson has been the highest-ranking woman at the U.S. Secret Service for years. Now she’ll simply be the highest-ranking official after she was sworn in today.
President Barack Obama appointed Pierson, the Secret Service’s chief of staff since 2008, to the top position yesterday, making history by appointing the first woman director at an agency that was tarnished by a scandal in which its agents allegedly patronized prostitutes in Colombia while preparing for a presidential visit there.
“Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own,” Obama said in a statement announcing the appointment.
Pierson was sworn in as director of the agency during a ceremony in the Oval Office. Vice President Joe Biden administered the oath as Obama looked on.
“She’s breaking the mold” for the agency, Obama said to reporters. “She’s come up through the ranks, done just about every job there is to do.” The president added that “we’re all extraordinarily proud.”
“As Joe Biden pointed out, this person now probably has more control over our lives than anyone else, except for our spouses,” Obama said.
The appointment elevates Pierson, 53, who worked as a Disney World parking lot attendant while in high school, to the top of an agency with dual roles of protecting the president and safeguarding the nation’s financial infrastructure. The agency has a budget of more than $1.7 billion and employs about 7,000 people, according to its website.
“You constantly hear our employees talk about the mission,” Pierson said in a 2007 interview with Smithsonian magazine, in which the Florida native also mentioned her teenage employment at the Walt Disney Co. theme park in Orlando. “I think that goes to the Type-A personalities we attract, and the criticality of being able to multi-task and meet deadlines. We’re a small agency with a large mission.”
The agency didn’t make Pierson available for an interview.
Senator Tom Carper, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the appointment “welcome news and a proud milestone.”
“Ms. Pierson’s vast experience has prepared her to lead this agency with its critical protective, investigative and cybersecurity missions,” Carper, a Delaware Democrat whose committee oversees the agency, said in a statement.
The logistics involved in the agency’s best-known duty -- protecting the president -- are daunting, Pierson said in an interview with the Partnership for Public Service, which promotes government service.
“I don’t think people realize the amount of preparation work that goes into a presidential visit, everything from where the president is going to physically arrive, whether by airplane or limousine, to the actual event site,” she said.
Pierson takes over an agency that was stung by the departure of at least nine employees after allegations that they hired prostitutes while setting up security for a presidential visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
The agency was criticized by lawmakers and the administration for the incident. Then-director Mark Sullivan made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to address concerns.
In all, more than 200 people were questioned by the agency during its investigation into the Colombia scandal. Nine employees were found to have engaged in “serious misconduct.” Another nine U.S. military service members received non-judicial punishments for their involvement in the April 2012 incident.
Sullivan, who announced his departure in February after 30 years with the agency and the third-longest tenure as its head, received compliments from lawmakers and Obama for how he handled the fallout of the prostitution scandal.
Pierson, whose appointment isn’t subject to Senate confirmation, now takes the helm.
“Just as Director Sullivan led the Secret Service through some difficult times, Director Pierson is poised to continue the agency’s proud non-partisan legacy,” said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Pierson came to the agency in 1983 after three years with the Orlando Police Department. Steadily advancing through the ranks, by 1988 she was transferred to the Presidential Protective Division, where she spent four years, according to a biography posted on the Women in Federal Law Enforcement website. Pierson spoke at the group’s 2009 leadership training conference.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Pierson was on the presidential protective detail and in charge of making sure “everyone was accounted for,” Pierson said in the Smithsonian interview.
Pierson became deputy assistant director of Protective Operations in 2005, overseeing the presidential and vice presidential protective divisions in the role. After almost two years as an assistant director, Pierson was appointed to the chief of staff position in August 2008.
The Secret Service, once part of Treasury Department, is now under the Department of Homeland Security. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano called Pierson’s appointment “historic” and called Pierson “exceptionally well-qualified, and well-equipped to lead the men and women of the U.S. Secret Service.”
In her role as chief of staff, Pierson has been responsible for the modernization of the agency’s information technology and processes, Napolitano said.
Pierson takes over an agency created in 1865 to combat counterfeit currency. In the decades that followed, it was reshaped to become the full-time protector of presidents and foreign dignitaries. The agency began providing part-time protection for the president in 1894 and assumed the full-time responsibility in 1902.