Elite US Secret Service now a punching bag and a punchline

The Secret Service lost more than its boss over the cascade of security lapses which cast doubt on its capacity to fulfill its prime mission: protecting President Barack Obama.

The agency, known for sharp-suited agents in mirror shades whispering into shirt cuff microphones, became a punchline.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson lost the confidence of the White House and paid the price for a storm of mockery stirred by incidents which battered the image of an agency already tarnished by drink and prostitution scandals in recent years.

In one incident, a man, allegedly carrying a knife, jumped over the White House fence, waltzed through the open front door and ran around a floor below Obama’s living quarters.

In another, a security guard at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who had a gun and a criminal record, took pictures of the president on an elevator.

– Astounded –

Long-time Secret Service watchers were astounded by the elevator breach.

The thought meanwhile that an intruder could evade multiple levels of security and get into the White House ?- perhaps the world’s most visible potential terror target — has baffled Washington.

Late night comics are meanwhile savaging a fumbling performance by Pierson before a congressional committee on Tuesday.

“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart branded the elite presidential protection force “The Shoddyguard” and quipped : “Here’s how dysfunctional the Secret Service is at this point ?- Congress had to help them come up with solutions!”

CBS chat show icon David Letterman noted that autumn is nigh and squirrels are rounding up nuts on the White House lawn ? “which is more than the Secret Service is doing.”

NBC “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon said Pierson is going to miss the White House “but knowing the Secret Service, she should be able to come back any time she wants. The door is always open, literally.”

Jeffrey Robinson, author of the book “Standing Next to History” with agent Joseph Petro, said that the mockery is a bitter pill for dedicated agents who put personal lives on hold to protect the president and his family.

“Morale is terrible. Management has let them down, they have not created enough intensity,” said Robinson.

Some critics trace the failings to reforms which attached the agency to the vast Department of Homeland Security after the September 11 attacks of 2001, replacing the more intimate oversight of the Treasury Department.

– No push back –

It seems clear the White House shares the view that Secret Service is lacking.

Officials went on television on Wednesday to express confidence in Pierson, but no one pushed back when she quit.

Obama then asked retired agent Joseph Clancy — a man in whose hands he placed his own life as head of the presidential detail — to steer his old agency through the crisis.

Presidents often become close to those who protect them around-the-clock.

So it is not surprising Obama has not publicly criticized the agency.

“I’m grateful for all the sacrifices that they make on my behalf and on my family’s behalf,” Obama said last month.

But the extent of White House displeasure became clear when Obama spokesman Josh Earnest revealed that officials only learned of the elevator incident moments before it was reported in the press.

And First Lady Michelle Obama and the president were apparently furious it took the Service days to establish that shots were fired at the White House in 2011, when one of their daughters was home.

The kudos that comes with membership of the elite agency comes with a high price.

The force is only 6,500 strong, but has multiple duties. Some black garbed officers are sharp shooters on the roof of the White House, others lean out of the windows of SUV’s in Obama’s armored motorcade.

Some officers work in plain clothes outside the White House complex and mingle with crowds at presidential events to spot trouble.

The uniformed branch of the Secret Service operates as a police force at White House entrances and mans airport-style X-Ray machines at presidential rallies.

A detachment of agents travels in a cabin towards the rear of Air Force One. Other squads await the famous blue-and-white plane’s arrival at home or abroad.

Advance teams of agents travel to foreign cities to size up possible threats weeks before the president arrives.

Agents stand for hours in the pounding heat of the African sun when Obama tours the continent or miss their Christmas dinners at home so Obama can eat his in Hawaii.

Others bed down after foreign trips on the “car plane” the massive transport aircraft that ferries the president’s “Beast” limousine.

Obama will be trailed by a Secret Service team for the rest of his life — all former presidents get lifetime protection along with their wives.

The strain for the agency becomes particularly acute in election year when top candidates must also be protected.

And the Service is often only noticed when things go wrong.

“The job of the Secret Service is to bring everybody home safe at night,” said Robinson.