The Secrets of the Secret Service

For more than 137 years, the Secret Service has presented an image to the world of bravery, excellence, and patriotism.

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The strains are manifest throughout the agency. The service has been forced to pull firearms instructors from its training academy and uniformed officers guarding foreign missions to work protective details, sources say. U.S. News has learned that plans are underway to post plainclothes agents in and around the White House, to replace departing uniformed officers. But plainclothes agents including experienced senior supervisors also are retiring—more than 60 since January alone. For the first time, young agents, too, are leaving in significant numbers. Internal statistics show that in all, nearly 85 agents have retired or quit and nearly 20 have transferred to other agencies since January. The attrition has caused alarm. "It's all smoke and mirrors," says a plainclothes agent. "We are like a giant ship teetering on toothpicks, waiting to collapse." Says another: "Our protective mission is in crisis." Despite the attrition and the increased responsibilities, Irving wrote, "[w]e are confident that we are able to carry out our investigative and protective responsibilities."

U.S. News conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen veteran Secret Service agents and employees with intimate knowledge of the agency's inner workings. The magazine also spoke with dozens more state, local, and federal law enforcement officials who interact with the Secret Service. Most of the Secret Service personnel, fearing retaliation by supervisors, spoke on condition of anonymity but provided U.S. News with sworn statements of their accounts. The magazine supplemented that information with an extensive review of property, death, divorce, and police records, court pleadings, and evidentiary documents.

The magazine's examination found violations of basic policies outlined in Secret Service training manuals. For instance, the agency's Special Investigation and Security manual says that when it comes to job applicants or senior officials, "extramarital sexual relationships are of concern in suitability or security determinations," especially giving access to "sensitive compartmentalized information" or highly classified information. The manual warns that such relationships, from a security standpoint, "can be important when the potential for undue influence or duress exists." Special Agent A. T. Smith was the head of Hillary Rodham Clinton's White House detail after serving on the Presidential Protective Detail (PPD). According to several sources and a divorce pleading filed by Smith's wife at the time alleging adultery, Smith was conducting a widely known extramarital relationship with Catherine Cornelius, President Clinton's cousin. Cornelius worked in the White House scheduling office around the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Smith accompanied Cornelius to numerous White House social events and eventually married her after the divorce from his wife. Smith declined a request for comment.

[More Allegations in Secret Service Sex Scandal]

Smith's relationship with Cornelius, and those of other agents on Clinton's detail with White House staffers, became an issue within the Secret Service, several current and former officials say. This was especially true after the Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998 and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr sought to question Secret Service officers and agents under oath regarding Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. The service and its director at the time, Lewis Merletti, resisted testifying, asserting a "protective function privilege." In a legal fight the Secret Service eventually lost in the Supreme Court, Merletti said in court papers that if agents were forced to testify, it would compromise their anonymity and jeopardize their proximity to the president. Many agents believed Merletti's fight was mostly a principled one. But others were suspicious that Merletti had other concerns: that Starr's inquiry would turn up information about personal indiscretions allegedly involving top personnel at the Secret Service, including Merletti himself. Merletti at one time was head of Clinton's detail. So was Stafford. In affidavits provided to U.S. News, six current Secret Service agents stated that Merletti and Stafford, while protecting Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, were widely believed to be involved in extramarital relationships with women who worked in the White House. In a June 2000 legal deposition in a federal employment discrimination lawsuit against the service, former Special Agent in Charge Ralph Grayson alleged that though the service knew about Stafford's relationship with the staffer, the agency promoted Stafford. Several agents said that these alleged relationships—Merletti's, Stafford's, Smith's, and those involving other agents on the PPD—were the subject of widespread discussion within the Uniformed Division, among agents at Secret Service headquarters, in several field offices, and among White House staffers. These agents, who asked not to be identified, say that there was speculation among agents and officers that the service was claiming the "protective function privilege" in order to prevent these relationships from coming to light. The former White House staffer allegedly involved with Merletti issued a written denial of any relationship. Merletti, in a letter to U.S. News, "emphatically" denied any relationship. "The claim of privilege," said Merletti, "was invoked precisely and exclusively as publicly stated and strongly supported by every living former director of the United States Secret Service as well as former President Bush."