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  1. Opinion

Political correctness trumps competence

Julia Pierson's failure as the first woman director of the Secret Service is symptomatic of a culture that pervades much of the federal government. It is simply making personnel decisions based not on competence but on political correctness. In other words, it's the "first" syndrome — the first woman, the first African American, the first Hispanic and so forth.

While that is all worthwhile in a nation trying to overcome the stigma of rampant discrimination, it is not always conducive to good management and as in the case of Pierson may actually set back the cause it seeks to further. In this instance, breaking the glass ceiling that has kept women out of the top jobs with a few exceptions in law enforcement generally.

Pierson's short tenure as Secret Service director will now likely and sadly be held up as an example of why that was correct policy and should not be changed despite the nearby success of D.C. Police Chief Kathy Lanier whose long experience and good sense have made her a model for those of her sex who aspire to such a career.

Despite Pierson's service as a top executive just behind the former director of the agency, there was reason to question whether she was up to assuming the top job. Among other things, she was his chief of staff at a time when the Secret Service failed to realize that seven bullets hit the Obama's White House living quarters three years ago. Agents initially discounted the shots as a truck backfire.

But the vetting process was overcome by the politics. That became tragic for her at least and thankfully not the president or his family. Combined with the cult of "I want to be liked" that also is often present in these situations, it could have been lethal. She was on the record as saying she wanted the Secret Service to be a friendly more inviting place. The result of this was a timid response to incidents that should have produced a wholesale house cleaning.

Those events included, of course, her failure to even mention to the president that the Secret Service carelessly to say the least had allowed an armed security contractor who was a former felon on an elevator with him in contravention of every security protocol. Worse than that was her reluctance to conduct more than a low key investigation, prompting bipartisan outrage when belatedly exposed. The comments of a former top federal law enforcement official was typical of the reaction:

"The response to this is quite simple," he told me. "Everyone connected with the incident — the head of the detail, the agent in charge in Atlanta and his vetting team ... everyone should have been instantly summoned by her and told they were being suspended for dereliction. Hell, half of them should have been reassigned to non protective duty and the rest forced to resign. But that would have made people unhappy with her and she apparently didn't want that as the first woman on the job."

But playing it safe is a major part of the culture these days. If it can go away unnoticed and the person in charge doesn't have to make tough decisions, it is all good.

Well, it isn't and it has fostered dangerous irresponsibility in how we conduct business. None worse at least visibly than in another of the Secret Service's gaffs that can be laid in Pierson's lap, the recent White House intruder who jumped the fence and made it to the East Room and beyond.

When added to other indiscretions by Secret Service personnel, including the engagement of prostitutes by those in a team advancing a presidential visit, it all adds up to making a good case for sweeping reforms.

In the meantime, while it is admirable to adhere to the ideal of "First," it should be a well thought out process, especially in this most crucial of assignments. Pierson's own reaction to all this should tell us it wasn't in her case. She blamed the media.

Dan Thomasson is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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