US President Barack Obama appoints first female chief of Secret Service

The agency was damaged by the Cartagena scandal, when agents had availed of prostitutes

President Barack Obama has appointed the first female director of the Secret Service, all at once giving the agency the chance to overcome the perception that it is a boys-only club and deflecting criticism that he has failed in his second term to give enough top jobs to female and minority candidates.

The job is going to Julia Pierson, a 30-year career veteran of the agency who in recent years has served as chief of staff to the outgoing director, Mark Sullivan. It was Mr Sullivan who was left to mop up and grovel to Congress after the Cartagena scandal when agents sent to the Colombian city almost a year ago to prepare for a visit by Mr Obama were found cavorting with prostitutes in their hotel rooms. 

It is an appointment that will not generate the political ruckus of others in the President’s gift – unlike cabinet posts, the Secret Service directorship is not subject to confirmation by the US Senate – but it is one that will have special significance inside the White House. This is the agency, after all, that is responsible for keeping the president and his family from harm. 

In fact, after joining the service in 1983 in Miami, Ms Pierson was assigned to the Presidential Protective Division in 1988 where she worked for four years. “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,” Mr Obama said in a statement.

Mr Obama is believed to have settled on Ms Pierson only after his first choice, a former Secret Service official based in Boston, pulled out of the running. The ex-official, David O’Connor, drew strong opposition from The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives after his name cropped up in a long-running racial discrimination lawsuit.

When she becomes the boss, Ms Pierson will face a challenge restoring morale to the agency which was deeply embarrassed by the Cartagena affair. In the wake of the scandal, several agents were relieved of their positions and a code of conduct was written forbidding agents to drink alcohol within 10 hours of reporting for duty or patronising “non-reputable” establishments.

“During the Colombia prostitution scandal, the Secret Service lost the trust of many Americans, and failed to live up to the high expectations placed on it,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley noted. “Ms Pierson has a lot of work ahead of her to create a culture that respects the important job the agency is tasked with.”

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