New Twists In the Line Of Fire

Tight-lipped Secret Service agents say most presidents are shocked the day they're sworn in.

In the swirl of pageantry that accompanies the oath of office, the agents who have been 24-hour sentinels during the campaign disappear.

Suddenly a new phalanx of stern-faced suits is in place. The President's Detail is the world's most-elite security team. And they quickly impose limits on the nation's new most-powerful man: No driving, no going outside alone. For the president, it takes some getting used to.

Yet today it's the Secret Service that's adjusting to new requirements. Not only can agents now be forced to testify about their boss, but in this era of more terrorism and heightened presidential exposure, the threat against him is growing. It's changing the way they do their job.

"It's hard to describe, the extraordinary amount of pressure," of serving on the presidential detail says Ronald Noble, a professor at New York University School of Law and a former top official at the Treasury Department, which oversees the Secret Service.

The president, says Professor Noble, attracts more-intense coverage from media outlets, creating more gawkers, supporters, and detractors than any other head of state. On the recent trip to Africa, for instance, people were standing 20-deep in 100-degree heat stampeding "just to touch him."

How much do they hear?

Now that the Secret Service bubble of silence has been pierced with compulsory testimony by agents last week, observers are watching for any "chill" in the relationship between agents and President Clinton. Asked last week if there was any evidence of such a cooling, spokesman Mike McCurry responded, "Conceivably, yeah."

But the forced testimony also raises questions about how many of the president's comments the agents actually hear - and how reliable their recollections would be -given that they wearing at least one earphone and are always checking for external threats.

To deal with those external threats, agents are trained in a multitude of areas, from explosives (so they know the kind of threat they face) to high-speed driving and water rescue.

Standards for physical fitness are high. "They are in Super Bowl shape seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," says Hamilton Brown, who guarded President Kennedy.

In addition to exterior threats, there are interior tensions. A fine balance is struck between White House staff and the Secret Service, whose interests in where the president moves don't always coincide. Staff benefit by having him out of the White House bubble, mingling with constituents. "The balance takes place on every level ... down to negotiations between staff and the Service in determining how many feet of buffer zone there will be at a public event," says a White House source.

A minimum of eight or nine agents guard the president over several shifts daily. They come from field offices where each agent spends seven to nine years before rotating through Washington. Roughly 35 percent of their time is spent doing protective work. The rest is spent investigating counterfeiting, and credit-card and electronic fraud.

Of the 2,100 special agents, only a select group is chosen to serve on the president's detail. They guard against everyone from well-financed, terrorist states to reactionary right-wingers in west Texas. Two weeks ago, for instance, federal officials took three men into custody in Brownsville, Texas. They allegedly conspired to kill Mr. Clinton with a cigarette lighter that could shoot a cactus thorn soaked in botulism and anthrax cultures.

In the Maxwell Smart school of terrorism, there are also compact firearms, so-called "key chain guns" being perfected in eastern Europe, knives made of ceramic and plastic, even pieces of clothing with carbon-fiber knives sewn into seams.

"Before, we never had an attempt on a president conducted without a gun. But now we're into whole new areas," says former agent Brown.

Modern counter-measures aren't discussed for obvious reasons. But the Secret Service has preserved its reputation with innovation. It was first, for instance, to develop discreet molded earplugs and microphones for the sleeve. It was first in detailed advance work, where agents go to a location, examine minute logistical details, including the line of sight to where the president will be positioned at any time.

Creative placement of agents even includes the by-now well-known example of agents dressed as umpires in the spring ritual of the president throwing out the first pitch of the season.

Searching the sock drawer

Inside the White House, the Service has perfected the screening of water and air. Alarms go off if there are even trace amounts of radiation.

For White House inhabitants, there is no such thing as personal mail - it is all screened. Even the living quarters, including the sock drawer in private bureaus, are searched periodically for electronic listening devices.

But it is away from the complex where the challenge is most acute. "The Secret Service is put in a difficult position. If the president asks the chief to stop the car to talk to a group of people, a decision based on the circumstances has to be made," the source says. "I've heard detail chiefs say, 'If something happens to him on my watch, that's it. His life is my life.' "

Security Details

* Total number of Secret Service employees: 4,700

* Special agents: 2,100

* Uniformed agents: 1,100

* Estimated number of threats to the president each year: 1,500.

* Protectees: president, vice president, their families; former presidents, their spouses, and minor children; visiting heads of state; presidential and vice presidential candidates; the president- and vice-president-elect, their families.

* The Secret Service was created in 1865 under the Department of Treasury to investigate currency counterfeiting. (A third to half of all US money at the time was bogus.) President Abraham Lincoln approved formation of the agency the day he was killed.

* In 1906, the service began protecting the president. The 1901 assassination of President William McKinley (the third US president killed in 36 years) was the catalyst.

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