Top Agent

Julia Pierson: The First Woman to Head the Secret Service

In a macho culture that some equate with men in dark glasses gallivanting with prostitutes, Julia Pierson has made it to the top. Eleanor Clift on the woman tapped to whip the Secret Service into shape.

03.27.13 12:55 PM ET

The highest-ranking female agent in the U.S. Secret Service, Julia A. Pierson, will be sworn in Wednesday at the White House to head the organization where she has worked for over 30 years. The first woman tapped for the top job, she takes over an agency rocked by a prostitution scandal last year.

Pierson has been chief of staff in the director’s office in Washington since 2008, where her main areas of responsibility have been technology and modernization. Over three decades, beginning as a special agent in Miami, she has held a wide variety of protective and investigative assignments and served as deputy assistant director in the Office of Protective Operations. 

In announcing her appointment, President Obama said, “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. Julia has had an exemplary career, and I know these experiences will guide her as she takes on this new challenge to lead the impressive men and women of this important agency.”

Pierson’s first job after graduating from the University of Central Florida was with the Orlando Police Department, where she was an officer. From there she went to the Miami field office of the Secret Service, turning in exemplary work and receiving a series of promotions that eventually took her to Washington. “She’s hit every position on the way up to chief of staff,” Paul Morrissey, assistant director of the Office of Government and Public Affairs, said when she was named chief of staff. He said it was “absolutely amazing.” Her rise is especially remarkable considering the macho culture that she was operating in and had to navigate.

That macho culture broke out into the open for all to see when agents—traveling to Cartagena, Colombia, to prepare for Obama’s visit last spring—were caught fraternizing with local prostitutes when one of the women went public, complaining that she hadn’t received payment as promised. Prostitution is legal in Cartagena, but that didn’t absolve the agents. The episode resulted in several firings and resignations, a round of hearings on Capitol Hill, and a month’s worth of jokes by all the late-night-talk-show hosts.   

The Secret Service has just 3,500 agents, and most of them know Pierson and have worked with her. A Washington Post feature last year on “Federal Player of the Week” noted that Pierson is best known for “playing a major role in helping the Secret Service carry out its dual missions of protecting the president of the United States and investigating counterfeiting and fraud.” The article points out that in the previous year, the agency arrested more than 9,000 individuals for counterfeiting and financial crimes; supported about 6,000 protected visits for the president, first lady, former presidents, government officials, and foreign dignitaries; and screened more than a million people through magnetometers.

Pierson told the Post that her biggest challenge was preparing travel for the president or vice president to a foreign country on short notice. In a quote that could be featured on a recruitment poster, Pierson said, “The Secret Service provides unique opportunities to witness history, while serving as a critical team member protecting our nation’s leaders and financial infrastructure. I don’t think people realize the amount of preparation work 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.”

When most people think of the Secret Service, they think of guys with dark glasses and wires in their ear. They’re not aware of what else the Secret Service does, or its role in going after counterfeiters, a crime that seems rather quaint compared to cyber-hacking for example. But as Obama noted, the safety and security of the president, the first family, top officials, and visiting dignitaries are in their hands, and there’s no room for error. For the first woman charged with this sacred trust, it’s recognition of the highest order.