Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Secret Service and Clinton: Post-Scandal Relationship ; Observers See Shift in Attitude Linked to Starr Testimony

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Secret Service and Clinton: Post-Scandal Relationship ; Observers See Shift in Attitude Linked to Starr Testimony

Article excerpt

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?

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. …

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