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Secret Service Director Julia Pierson Is in the Hot Seat

The agency's first female director hoped to turn the Secret Service's tarnished reputation around. Instead, she faces fresh scrutiny over security.
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When President Obama appointed her the new director of the Secret Service a year and a half ago, hopes were high that Julia Pierson could redeem the agency's tarnished reputation.

“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 in March 2013, when Pierson was sworn in as the first female director of the Secret Service in its nearly 150-year history.

Now Pierson, 55, is coming under fire for botching the assignment Obama had called out: protecting the first family. The law enforcement veteran with more than 30 years of experience with the Secret Service is being grilled Tuesday by Congress after a series of major mistakes by her agents, including a White House break-in on Sept. 19 by an Iraq war vet who hopped the fence and made it into the East Room with a knife before he was tackled and disarmed.

"I am committed to a full and robust fact-finding that allows me to look at what went wrong."

While the White House released a statement after the breach assuring the public that "the President has full confidence in the Secret Service," Pierson will face tough questions about how the incident happened — especially in light of other recent safety revelations, including a bullet that struck the White House residence in 2011 and an imbroglio involving prostitutes and a Secret Service detail in Colombia in 2012.

The scrutiny the Secret Service is currently facing for security lapses is a stunning turn from the direction Pierson hoped to take the agency when she took over from her predecessor, longtime director Mark Sullivan, who retired months after the prostitution scandal ahead of a presidential trip to Colombia.

Her appointment from chief of staff to director, which did not require Senate confirmation, was touted by many.

She has "proven herself to be a leader, as an assistant director and chief of staff," Ralph Basham, who served as director under George W. Bush, told The Washington Post at the time. "I’d match her up against anyone in the organization.”

The Orlando native, who graduated from University of Central Florida with a criminal justice degree, has held a variety of positions at the Secret Service, including serving on the protective detail for President George Bush from 1988 to 1992, and for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001.

She joined the service's Miami field office in 1983. After a bumpy start (her first paycheck was stolen by thieves who had nabbed her ATM card), she worked her way up to management positions, including assistant director of the office of human resources and training and deputy assistant director in the office of protective operations, where her responsibilities included daily security operations.

“I don’t think people realize the amount of preparation 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,” Pierson told the Partnership for Public Service in 2012. “We need to know where he’ll walk, where he’ll wait, where he’ll speak from, and all have to be evaluated by the Secret Service to secure his safety.”

With Obama's safety in the spotlight now, she says she's committed to investigating the Secret Service's missteps.

“We are certainly going to leave no stone unturned,” Pierson told The New York Times last week. “I am committed to a full and robust fact-finding that allows me to look at what went wrong."

Before she joined the 6,500-person agency, Pierson was a police officer in Orlando until 1983, where she was one of the first female officers who was assigned to patrol as opposed to being put in the more traditional posts for women in law enforcement at the time, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

But it hasn't been all serious work for Pierson. Growing up in Orlando, she had a few jobs at Disney World, including once working as a character in the amusement park.

"To this day, I think the experience of dealing with large crowds at the park had a good influence on my ability to do that sort of work with the Secret Service," she once told Smithsonian Magazine.