- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002


Years ago, when Condoleezza Rice was a mere National Security Counsel staffer, it was reported that the Secret Service had removed her from the rope line on the South Lawn of the White House. There was some comment at the time in the press that the Service as its friends and detractors always call it was racist. I thought then and now that that view was unfair.
After three years at the NSC, my conclusion was and is that the Service doesn't trust anyone, regardless of class, creed and color even if you have the right pin in the lapel. That judgment, I'm sure would be shared by Philip Melanson and Peter Stevens, authors of "The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency," a new study of the Secret Service, its history, accomplishments, failures and current problems.
The Service is a unique organization, and like many agencies and departments in the U.S. government, it just sort of grew without any real forethought. It began life shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. Lodged in the Treasury Department, it was assigned the job of battling counterfeiters (which it still does) because as the authors point out, up to a third of the nation's money supply at the time was bogus.
Only much later would the Service acquire its better-known role of protecting the president. Indeed, in the first half of the republic's history, chief executives had no regular guardians. In the late 19th century, Secret Service agents were at times "borrowed" for bodyguard duty, but it was an irregular arrangement that was technically illegal.
It was not until 1906 after the assassination of three presidents that the Service got statutory authority to protect the nation's commander in chief, and then not without considerable grumbling in Congress about unnecessary presidential perquisites and fears of creating a Praetorian Guard.
The latter has more significance and seems to be an inherent suspicion of unchecked power that goes back to the Founders. One example: Harry Truman's justified fear that a centralized intelligence service could turn into a Gestapo. Consequently, it wasn't until 1951, after a close call Mr. Truman experienced at the hands of Puerto Rican chauvinists, that the Service's protective duties were put on a permanent basis.
The Service's missions continue to evolve it only gave up its counterespionage activities in 1938 all of that being acquired by the FBI. While J. Edgar Hoover was in charge, the FBI also once attempted to take over presidential protection as well something the normally compliant Franklin Roosevelt refused to do although Hoover had plenty of support from his allies in the Congress.
The authors detail all these bureaucratic maneuverings, and by doing so prepare the reader for an upcoming interagency scrum revolving around the proposed Department of Homeland Security. Under the proposed legislation, the Service would be moved out of the Treasury Department into the new DHS. But would the Service retain its job of seeking out counterfeiters and forgers? Probably not, but that means a wholesale revamping of the Service its largest in history with consequences at which one well can guess.
These and other equally significant topics are picked up by the authors, although despite their chosen title there is little here that is sensational. Also, the book is repetitive and could have used a stronger editor's hand. On at least one occasion, it seems contradictory. In an earlier chapter, the authors fulminate against those who have intimated that John Kennedy was partially responsible for his own assassination by being too reckless. Later, the authors seem to accept the notion, more insinuation than a specific charge.
But that too raises a problem the Service has faced from the beginning. It can protect the president, but chief executives (and their political staffs) feel uneasy about keeping the boss in a bulletproof bubble all the time.
How the Service has been forced to juggle with these conflicting imperatives makes for good but unsettling reading. It also makes for enormous pressure on the agents themselves, who have a history of burnout, including alcoholism and nervous breakdowns. That leaves the president and the American people not, thankfully, with a Praetorian Guard, but a collection of men and women who perform a tough job in increasingly dangerous times.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security staff during the first Reagan administration.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide