WASHINGTON — As the president's elite sentinel against danger, the Secret Service projects an image of impenetrability, in part, by its silence, both on the job and off.
The agency's ability to create a safe environment against the assassin - as well as to ensure that the embarrassing missteps of its executive-branch protectees don't leak to the press - is legendary.
But a recent dust up between the director of the Secret Service and a handful of former agents has some observers questioning how long former agents are expected to keep secret the events they witness while on duty. At the core of the debate: Is history cheated, and the First Amendment thwarted, when an agent is forbidden from recounting past assignments after an appropriate amount of time?
Secret Service agents are not required to sign a confidentiality agreement when they join the agency. Although such pacts are common in the private sector to protect company secrets, Secret Service agents are not legally bound to stay silent once they leave government service.
But "there is policy and there is unspoken rule," says Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. As members of the Secret Service, agents understand they will voluntarily remain silent from the time they swear their oath. "It is something agents know from the time they come on the job, and they take it with them through retirement," Mr. Mackin says.
Director Lewis C. Merletti sent a letter earlier this month, firmly reminding all protective personnel - past and present - of that oath which includes a promise to serve in a manner "worthy of trust and confidence," he wrote.
The letter and larger controversy are a response to the disclosure of President Kennedy's embarrassing liaisons, including trysts with prostitutes, allegedly witnessed by former agents. The agents disclosed the information in interviews to author Seymour Hersh for his controversial tome "The Dark Side of Camelot."
OF the half-dozen retired Secret Service agents interviewed for this story, those who were willing to comment said such disclosures were inappropriate. But none of them would criticize a fellow agent, and many mentioned their First Amendment right of free speech.
"This is a total embarrassment. We are all red faced about this," says Hamilton Brown, president of the 1,400-strong Association of Former Agents of the United States Secret Service. Mr. Brown, who also protected Kennedy, says code of silence or not, he would have turned down Mr. Hersh's request for an interview based on the poor quality of Hersh's information.
"He kept reporting things to me that were patently false. He kept saying he had documentation. I told him the information was false because I was there. At the end of our conversation, I told him never to call again," Brown says of his conversation with Hersh.
Other retired agents say the agents who spoke to Hersh have shown, through their actions, why agents shouldn't talk. The negative impact on the Secret Service's reputation, they say, will likely be enough to discourage future disclosures.
"It just reflects badly on us. What it does reinforce is that nothing should be revealed," says former agent Tim McCarthy who took a bullet for Ronald Reagan during the 1981 attempt on the President's life.
"I don't know anyone who is condemning them. From time to time, we need to heighten awareness [of keeping silent]," Mr. McCarthy says.
There have been past cases where agents have spoken out of school. One former agent assigned to Richard Nixon wrote a book that included descriptions of heavy drinking and outbursts of temper by the president.
What is harmed in such cases, suggest proponents of the unwritten nondisclosure policy, is the presidency itself.
"It's not just 'that' President," says Richard Roth, a former security specialist with the agency. "It is the Office of the President," Mr. Roth says, adding that he would never disclose information about President Clinton, despite not being a big fan.
But agents are required by law to speak out, if they witness illegal wrongdoing.
But for the nonprosecutable improprieties witnessed, the rules for disclosure are undefined and controversial, leading some to advocate a disclosure agreement for the 1,600 active agents.
The agreement would spell out what information about a President could be revealed. But perhaps the most vexing question of such an agreement is: When is an agent free to share stories and past episodes?
"The answer is, after 'a reasonable amount of time,' " says Robert McCrie at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But what is that in concrete terms, especially considering the public's right to know?" he asks.
Those questions, and the silent understanding agents currently operate under, will be tested by the voracious appetite of the media, predict some observers. "That code will be worn thin when real dollars are at stake," says mass-communications professor John Zelezny, at California State University.
A written agreement, he argues, would allow agents to know when they can freely speak. It would also grant historians access to the kind of "fly on the wall" details about former presidents not gleaned from official documents that fill in a historical profile.
But the retired agents' association opposes a formal agreement.
"We have a great track record. This is clearly an aberration," says Brown.