Many believe that at the root of such problems is a lack of accountability within the Secret Service. A government official familiar with the agency says the service has effectively used its Office of Inspection to sweep problems under the rug, seeking to prevent the inspector general (IG) of the Treasury Department—the service's parent agency—from opening and conducting investigations. In the past, this official says, the service circumvented the IG by classifying misconduct allegations as "management issues," thus keeping problems in-house, or in agency parlance, "in the family." Within the service, many current and former officials say, the "code of silence" is a time-honored tradition. Inspector General Jeffrey Rush says his office could have missed investigating some misconduct. In another area, a Treasury Department report, dated Oct. 31, 2001, concluded that investigators from the inspector general's staff "encountered a Secret Service policy hindering our access to its employees and records." That policy required agents and officers contacted by the Treasury IG's office to notify Secret Service headquarters. "It's like the cat and the bell," says Rush. "The mice like it, but the cat's got a job to do." Rush says he complained about the policy to Congress. The new policy still requires notification—not by agents but by the IG himself—before employees are contacted.
But the IG's office also is partly to blame for the inadequate oversight of the Secret Service. Rush acknowledges that, until he recently made changes, the IG routinely reviewed only cases involving complaints against senior managers, while ignoring things like complaints against Secret Service inspectors—the officials charged with policing the agency. Weak oversight and the ability of Secret Service inspectors to handle many problems in-house have contributed to morale problems in the agency, current and former employees say, because of a widespread belief that punishment for misconduct is administered arbitrarily. A February 2001 review by the Treasury IG of the Secret Service Inspection Division came to the same conclusion. The report said that in nearly a quarter of the 75 discipline files reviewed, discipline was not administered either consistently or in a timely manner. "We found that the USSS [U.S. Secret Service] has no centralized tracking or reporting system for employee misconduct allegations," said the report. "And they are therefore unable to track misconduct allegations that were handled as management issues."
All this is not to say that wrongdoers are never punished. Secret Service managers have taken many agents to task, but many remain on the force and continue to rise, despite lapses and abuses. What is galling, some agents and officers say, is a double standard that exists for employees who have relationships with Secret Service brass. If you have a "hook," the saying goes, you can sometimes get off the hook. If you don't and you incur the service's wrath, beware. In those instances, some service personnel say, the agency can go to extraordinary lengths to investigate suspected wrongdoing. Patrick Cruise is a former special agent in the Secret Service's Miami field office. In lawsuits filed against the service, Cruise alleges the special agent in charge suspected that he was abusing drugs because Cruise was dating a young part-time administrative employee who the service suspected was doing drugs. On Sept. 29, 1999, when Cruise wound up in the hospital sick with suspected hepatitis, he says, the service asked another agent's wife who worked as a clerk in that hospital to steal his medical records so it could confirm the suspicions about drugs. A toxicology test, which included a routine screening for drug use, was presumed positive. Cruise says the hospital failed to do the necessary follow-up test to confirm the result. His supervisor visited him in the hospital soon afterward, Cruise says, bringing Ben & Jerry's chocolate brownie ice cream and a Maxim girlie magazine. But the real reason for the visit, Cruise says, was to get him to sign a medical release so the Secret Service could obtain the toxicology test results legally so it would have the paper records it would need in any legal proceeding after firing him. After Cruise was diagnosed with mononucleosis and discharged, Cruise says, the Secret Service ordered him to submit to a urinalysis and a forensic hair test that can detect drug use dating back months. Both were negative. Several weeks later, says Cruise, he was fired for leaving his duty post and going to the bathroom. Cruise has sued the hospital for malpractice and negligence and has filed a federal equal employment opportunity complaint against the service. He also has a federal suit pending to get his job reinstated. "Years ago if you would have spoken to me, I would have nothing negative to say about them. They were the best thing in the world," says Cruise. "I would defend the Secret Service until I was blue in the face. Now, I have nothing good to say."