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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Merletti told U.S. News that "rumors of the type you have raised were in fact inquired into by the Office of the Independent Counsel and were debunked and found absolutely lacking in credibility or foundation." But Solomon Wisenberg, a former top Starr prosecutor, rejected that claim. "That's preposterous," said Wisenberg, who is now in private practice. While not confirming that Merletti had been questioned, Wisenberg said, "it was never a part of our mandate to look into the sexual peccadilloes of Secret Service employees." In his letter, Irving also emphasized that the privilege was invoked "because of an overarching national interest that requires the most zealous protection." The former White House staffer named in Grayson's deposition as having had a relationship with Stafford did not return phone calls. Stafford, through a spokesman, also declined to respond.

In the end, Starr's lawyers questioned more than 30 Uniformed Division officers and agents and one supervisor of the PPD, Larry Cockell, who took over the presidential detail from Stafford in 1998, when Stafford assumed the directorship. Neither Merletti nor Stafford testified before the grand jury. "We wanted to be able to interview those with information, while being sensitive to and balancing the needs of the agency," Starr said in an interview. "We didn't want to needlessly intrude into their work."

The Lewinsky episode clearly took a toll on the Secret Service, but current and former service personnel say they are more concerned now about what they describe as a growing number of personal and professional lapses. In mid-February, Secret Service agents visited Clayton Greenhalgh's Salt Lake City snowboard shop to pick up some souvenir Olympics hats. After they left, Greenhalgh was shocked to find a step-by-step plan for protecting Vice President Cheney at the closing ceremony of the winter games. The document ran to more than a dozen pages. Details included where Cheney would sit, who would be near him, and how he would enter and depart the facility, Rice-Eccles Stadium. The document also described precisely where Cheney's protective detail would be located and how it would be armed. It included specifics of Cheney's movements in stairwells and enumerated what rooms would be closed off from the time Cheney arrived until the moment he departed. "Basically," Greenhalgh told U.S. News, it covered "Vice President Cheney's every move . . . I happened to be in the right place at the right time, but if the right bad person found that, something really bad could have happened."

As embarrassing as the breach was, the Secret Service wasn't terribly interested in getting its security plan back, Greenhalgh recalls. Alarmed by what he'd found, Greenhalgh called the Salt Lake City Secret Service office. "They said they'd send someone right over," he says. Nearly an hour later, no one had shown up. Greenhalgh called again. "They said, 'If you could bring it down to us, maybe that would be better.' " Greenhalgh obliged. After turning the document over, he asked an agent if he might get a picture of the vice president for his troubles. "She said, 'I work for him, and I can't get a picture, so why should you?' " Greenhalgh recalls. The next day, two agents showed up at Greenhalgh's shop to grill him. "They were both terribly rude," Greenhalgh says. "They were talking to me like I did something wrong. I was put off 100 percent." Irving said that employees "should have demonstrated greater care, in safeguarding this information." But, he added, "the information contained was not classified and, even if compromised, would not have altered or affected our overall security plan." He said none of the agents has been disciplined.

Other, less public incidents raise questions about the levels of stress many Secret Service employees must contend with and the ability of agency supervisors to monitor problems. Some examples:

In Los Angeles, an agent guarding former President Ronald Reagan was found guilty in 1997 of having sex with a 16-year-old girl, possession of methamphetamine, and violently resisting arrest. The case came to light when the girl's father—a close friend of Agent Timothy O'Brien's—saw his daughter returning from the agent's house next door one morning, wearing only pajamas. Testimony indicated that O'Brien had sex with the girl for hours, often night after night, then gave her tabs of methamphetamine, or "speed," to help keep her awake during school the next day. When the girl's father confronted O'Brien, the agent drew his service weapon and threatened to shoot him, says William Pounders, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge who presided over O'Brien's trial. O'Brien was arrested at gunpoint but only after a brawl with two officers, in which one was injured. While O'Brien was not charged with perjury, in court, he lied repeatedly, says Richard Rosenthal, the Los Angeles County prosecutor who handled the case. "He was the worst perjurer I think I saw," Rosenthal said, "in 15 years of being a prosecutor." Pounders says, "In 18 years as a judicial officer, I have never had another case involving so many violations of so many different laws by someone who should have been above reproach." Testimony indicated that O'Brien—who said he had done advance work for President George H. W. Bush and been given specialized counterterrorism training—had taken methamphetamine while on a training trip to Washington. He had not been drug-tested since 1991. "The testing was minuscule—shockingly minimal, considering the circumstances," says James Blatt, O'Brien's attorney. "This was an eye-opener for all of us. We all thought of the Secret Service as this mystical agency that could do no wrong. It's not the case." O'Brien, fired by the Secret Service, was sentenced to six years in prison.