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Secret Service chief is out after series of security scandals

WASHINGTON — Julia Pierson resigned as Secret Service director Wednesday after just 1 1/2 years on the job following a series of major security lapses by her agency that eroded President Barack Obama's confidence in her ability to run the agency tasked with protecting him.

Pierson's abrupt departure — one day after Obama expressed full confidence in her — came as lawmakers from both parties were calling for her ouster after her halting performance during a House hearing Tuesday.

A decisive factor in the president's change of heart, aides said, was that he learned only from press accounts Tuesday that a private security guard with a gun and criminal history had not been screened and was allowed to board an elevator with him last month in Atlanta.

Pierson, 55, offered a shifting and incomplete account Tuesday about how a man with a knife had evaded several layers of White House security two weeks ago and made it as far as the East Room before being tackled by an off-duty agent.

Obama "concluded new leadership of the agency was needed based on recent and accumulating accounts" of performance problems within the agency, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

Pierson had been installed by Obama in March 2013 as the first female director in the agency's 148-year history. Her appointment was aimed in part at helping the agency overcome a reputation as a boys' club after a prostitution scandal the previous year.

But her tenure was rocky and included an embarrassing scandal in March when three agents were sent home from a presidential trip to Europe after one was found passed out drunk in the hallway of the president's hotel.

"It had to happen," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, one of Pierson's fiercest critics, said of her departure. "She lost the confidence of the men and women in the Secret Service. The situation was getting worse, not better. She wasn't candid with Congress nor was she sharing vital details with the president."

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who accepted Pierson's resignation, said Joseph Clancy, a longtime Secret Service veteran who retired in 2011, would replace her on an acting basis as a search for a permanent replacement is conducted.

Clancy, who has been working security in the private sector for the past three years, served as the head of Obama's first protective detail after he took office in 2009. Clancy was described by associates as someone who understands the demands of the job and commands respect within the 6,700-person agency.

Earnest said an independent panel of security experts will conduct the search, but he did not give a timetable for a decision. The appointment does not require Senate confirmation. Former agency officials said there was no clear successor to Pierson, and some in Congress were pushing the administration to look outside the Secret Service for a replacement.

The agency faces deep morale problems, budget constraints and operational questions as it prepares to ramp up for the 2016 presidential campaign, during which the Secret Service traditionally bolsters its strength to protect candidates from both political parties during a hectic travel schedule.

"They will certainly consider individuals from outside that agency," Earnest said of the search team. "They will also offer a recommendation to (Johnson) about whether or not a review of broader issues concerning the Secret Service is necessary."

A three-decade veteran of the agency who had served as chief of staff to her predecessor, Mark Sullivan, Pierson was described upon taking the top job as a skilled and dedicated manager who had helped oversee a $250 million project to modernize the institution's communications and data management networks.

She kept a low profile during her first year on the job but was thrust into the spotlight amid the scandals that broke this year in a series of reports in the Washington Post. The newspaper reported this summer that Sullivan had pulled agents off White House patrols for at least two months in 2011 to protect a personal friend.

The paper also revealed last month that the Secret Service stumbled in its response to a gunman who fired at the White House from beyond the security perimeter while Obama was out of town in November 2011. It took four days for the agency to determine that bullets had struck the building, a finding that came only after a housekeeper discovered bullets on the Truman balcony. Sasha Obama, the president's younger daughter, was home at the time of the shooting.

The Sept. 19 breach, in which Army veteran Omar Gonzalez leapt over the White House fence and managed to sprint through much of the mansion's main floor, helped clinch Pierson's downfall.