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U.S. News opens closet of Secret Service

| Thursday, June 13, 2002

Anyone who has encountered U.S. Secret Service agents guarding the president knows how arrogant, pushy and perpetually testy they can be.

The reason the agents are so grumpy all the time has nothing to do with the little radio thingamabobs in their ears. Or the 50 pounds of guns and ammo they've got stashed under their bulging suit jackets.

It's because Secret Service agents have a very specific, sacred mission to perform — protect the president's life at all costs.

If you don't count a few embarrassing lapses — the Kennedy, McKinley and Garfield assassinations and the near-missed attempts on Reagan, Ford and FDR come to mind — the Secret Service has maintained a well-polished image as a valorous, patriotic and elite security force.

Until now, anyway.

According to this week's U.S. News & World Report 's cover story, "Secrets of the Secret Service," the Secret Service has an embarrassingly high rate of drunks, criminals, philanderers and boors among its well-dressed, overworked and stressed-out workforce.

Plus, it's having serious morale problems and bleeding employees at the same time it's expanding its duties beyond protecting U.S. government execs and visiting foreign dignities to providing security at the Olympics and the Super Bowl.

These shortcomings aren't as threatening to national security as the embarrassing intelligence failures and bunglings of the FBI and the CIA, both of which dwarf the 4,000-person Secret Service.

But as U.S. News documents at length, the Secret Service — whose annual budget has jumped by half in the past five years to $857 million — is hardly living up to its motto of "Worthy of Trust and Confidence."

Secret Service men don't merely degrade themselves by watching porno videos at night in the White House basement. They also get into lots of barroom brawls. They go to jail for embezzling money and having sex with young girls. And they show up drunk for work without being disciplined.

U.S. News says some agents — in violation of strict Secret Service rules against mixing romance with security duties — carried on extramarital affairs with upper-level White House staffers in the Clinton era.

So far, the Secret Service has been able to sweep a lot of this tabloidian stuff under the rug, thanks to its own time-honored "code of silence" and an ability to escape outside oversight and accountability.

The U.S. News' scandal-mongering isn't going to bring on an FBI-like reorganization of the Secret Service. But it convincingly shows what grown-ups always should have suspected: The agency never was as pure and good as the TV shows and government propagandists had led us to believe.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the debunking of yet another highly polished American myth is to read "Democracy's Drink," American Heritage magazine's cover story for June/July.

It is a tender, historical ode to the making, marketing and popularizing of America's greatest, most beloved and most socially, politically and culturally symbolic beverage — beer.

As writer Max Rudin explains, with its links to sports, male bonding, saloons, working-class culture and its "implicitly rebellious, nose-thumbing attitude toward the tastes and rules of social 'betters' and other authority figures," beer is an unchallenged drink of democracy.

If so, it might be the only icon we have left.

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