Secret Service and Clinton: Post-scandal relationship

Observers see shift in attitude linked to Starr testimony.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The day he stepped out of a smoke-windowed Chevy Suburban and into a Washington courtroom, the head of the president's elite Secret Service detail broke tradition established by his 23 predecessors.

Against his training and wishes, Agent Larry Cockell discussed - under oath - what he had seen and heard while serving in the line of fire.

Since that unprecedented day more than 1-1/2 years ago, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky matter, has the cocoon-like relationship between the president and his guardians changed as a result of that testimony? Are agents being kept at arm's length and out of earshot, as security professionals claimed they would be?

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While many see no discernible change in Secret Service job performance, others say there's been a subtle shift - one that primarily affects attitudes.

Robert McCrie, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says discussions with Secret Service personnel who have served the executive branch - but not directly on the president's detail - suggest a notable change.

"They do not want to be linked with presidential prevarication," says Mr. McCrie. "It is real, and represents a shift in the way security practitioners feel."

Indeed, there's some indication that the connection between President Clinton and his Secret Service detail had cooled at the time of the Kenneth Starr investigation.

Asked in July 1998 whether that was the case, Mike McCurry, White House spokesman at the time, responded, "Conceivably, yeah."

"The effects would be rather subtle, and many of the consequences would not be public," says Philip Melanson, author of "The Politics of Protection: The US Secret Service in the Terrorist Age."

Of course, much is at stake for the agents, a president, and the nation. Former agents on duty during assassination attempts, including those involving Presidents Ford and Reagan, remind that it is imperative for the security detail to stay in close proximity to the president.

Hands-on closeness is credited with saving Mr. Reagan's life in March 1981. The attack by John Hinckley Jr. wounded Reagan, but Agent Timothy McCarthy stepped in front of another bullet, shielding the president.

When Mr. Clinton is working a rope line, Agent Cockell can be seen hovering over his shoulder, sometimes with a hand on his belt, ready to pull him away to evade danger.

Privileged information?

But concerns about the long-term effect of requiring agents to testify about what they see and hear while guarding the president have galvanized some lawmakers to try to grant Secret Service agents limited immunity from testimony.

After the Senate acquitted Clinton of the impeachment articles forwarded by the House, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont proposed the Secret Service Protective Privilege Act of 1999.

"The assassination of a president has international repercussions and threatens the security and future of the entire nation," argued Senator Leahy, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Leahy's bill would require agents to testify about criminal malfeasance that occurs in their sight.

But they would have been immune from the Starr testimony. Because no crime occurred in their presence, the Secret Service couldn't be called upon to testify, even though what happened in the Oval Office was linked to subsequent allegations of criminal conduct.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah has signaled an openness to creating some form of privilege for Secret Service agents. But he considers the Leahy bill too wide in scope, staff members say, and this being an election year and a short legislative session, the measure is unlikely to advance anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the bill's proponents continue to push for hearings. They want to ask agents firsthand, "Are you being kept at arm's length, and how are you changing your practices?" says a Judiciary staff member.

Secret Service officials are currently working with Judiciary Committee staff on an acceptable version of the bill, says Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin.

While acknowledging the unique circumstances presidential security requires, some legal experts believe creating a legislated privilege would be unconstitutional.

"There are other ways those concerns can be addressed," says Albert Tellechea, a former special counsel with the Justice Department. "If the president engages in illegal acts, he has no entitlement to confidentiality."

Ramping up the ranks

The Secret Service has about 2,500 special agents and almost 1,100 uniformed officers. More than 200 new agents are being recruited to cope with the growing threat of terrorism and increased presidential exposure at home and abroad.

Clinton traveled to Greece last November, a trip described as "among the most dangerous in the history of presidential trips," according to a Washington security firm.

Perhaps equally perilous is a trip to South Asia next month that might include a stop in Pakistan.

Even with those high-profile concerns, presidential security and the privacy question are already extending beyond Clinton. The presidential hopefuls of this election year, a new batch of protectees, are talking about strategy and discussing fund-raising in front of agents.

Just last week, for example, a Secret Service detail began guarding Democratic candidate Bill Bradley.

"If several presidential candidates, for example, refused protection out of concern ... we'd be seeing a direct effect," Mr. Melanson says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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