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Housecleaning at the Secret Service [Editorial]

Secret Service director Julia A. Pierson did herself no favors this week when she appeared before a House subcommittee to explain why her agency so badly bungled the job of protecting the president. There's no excuse for the repeated lapses in security that put the president's life at risk, nor for the agency's attempts to hide the seriousness of the incidents afterward. Ms. Pierson finally acknowledged that today when she submitted her resignation as head of the agency.

In the days leading up to her departure, Ms. Pierson had promised a thorough internal investigation of the matter, but that's not good enough. Clearly the Secret Service can't be trusted to investigate itself, which is why President Barack Obama now needs to appoint an independent panel to get to the bottom of things.

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Ms. Pierson, the first woman to lead the Secret Service, was appointed to the agency's top spot a year and a half ago to clean up an earlier scandal involving agents accused of bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms during a presidential visit to Colombia in 2012. She said then that her priority would be to reform the agency's macho culture and boost professional morale. But in light of the recent security breaches, not much seems to have changed in terms of institutional culture, and as for raising morale, it's telling that the agents familiar with the lapses seem more willing to speak out to Congress and the media than to their own higher-ups. That's an unmistakable sign of an organization that doesn't take kindly to criticism from within, even when the whistleblowers are just trying to do their job.

All those issues came to light following an incident last month in which an apparently deranged man climbed over the White House fence, sprinted across the lawn and entered the executive mansion through an unlocked door before agents managed to tackle him. Initial reports suggested he was intercepted by guards just inside the doorway, but it later turned out he had made his way through several rooms and even passed a staircase leading up to the First Family's residence before he was subdued.

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The agency also said he was unarmed at the time, then had to backtrack and admit he was carrying a knife — and that a search of his car uncovered hundreds of rounds of ammunition as well as two machetes and a hatchet. Luckily the president and his family were not in the building at the time.

It was that incident that apparently prompted several officers with knowledge of past lapses to come forward with their stories. One involved a 2011 incident in which a gunman fired several shots at the White House from a car on the Ellipse behind the mansion. But the Secret Service didn't even realize the building had been hit until four days later when a housekeeper found broken glass and bits of plaster near a window in the residence. When asked about that incident, Ms. Pierson's offered the lame excuse that agents heard the shots but thought they were backfires from a passing car.

Potentially the most serious incident occurred last month when the president traveled to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to talk about the threat posed by the Ebola virus. Somehow the president was directed to share an elevator with a security contractor at the facility who was carrying a gun and had three convictions for assault and battery on his record. That violated the agency's own protocols for keeping people with weapons or criminal histories out of arm's reach of the president. Yet the man was allowed to come within inches of the president without undergoing any kind of screening, and agents didn't even realize he was armed until after the president had exited the elevator. Compounding the error, the president wasn't even told of the lapse at the time.

President Obama has received more death threats that any other president; any one of these incidents easily could have led to a catastrophe, and there may even be more that we still don't know about. The fact that the president himself hasn't been more critical of the agency's performance is understandable but irrelevant; he's in an incredibly awkward position, caught between his desire to protect himself and his family while wishing not to offend the very men and women he must depend on to do that.

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Ms. Pierson obviously felt compelled to resign because if she couldn't be held ultimately accountable for the agency's failures, no one could. Nor should she be the only one to lose her job over this. What about all her top deputies who should have known what was going on yet did nothing to correct it? After the thorough independent investigation that's needed to uncover what other lapses may have occurred on Ms. Pierson's watch, there needs to be a housecleaning of all the agency's other high-level managers who fell down on the job.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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