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Secret Scandal

Guards of dishonour: Secret Service in line of fire

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

They are supposed to be low-profile, unobtrusive and out of the frame, often working thanklessly in the shadows. But they are, sadly, front and centre right now, making headline news. The US Secret Service is being roasted over a media, congressional, and public fire pit following the transgressions of a few agents ahead of President Obama's trip to Summit of the Americas in Colombia, where they are said to have consorted with "escorts" - an euphemism for high-priced, discreet, and discriminating hookers - and landing into a scrap with them over payments for services rendered.

The row got loud enough for local police to intervene, and it wasn't long before the local media got a sniff of it and news travelled to the US. Soon the executive - including a furious President Obama - and the Congress waded into the episode, even as Washington fumed about the egregious excesses in Las Vegas of another government department. The scandal has now cast a shadow on the sterling service of an agency of 150-year vintage, created by Abraham Lincoln initially to investigate counterfeit currency.

How ironic it is then that the scandal broke over the payment of a couple of hundred dollars by an agent who had engaged an escort overnight. "When in Colombia make sure you pay your tab" read one T-shirt that was cranked out in the US even as the scandal surfaced. "How about a little secret service?" sneered another. Late night comics are being even more ribald. "Did you hear how they caught those Secret Service agents with prostitutes in Colombia? Apparently the men were walking around wearing nothing but their sunglasses and those earpieces, " joked comedian Conan O'Brien.

Indeed, earpieces and sunglasses are the signature items of Secret Service agents, but they are also known for their reserve and composure under pressure. Protecting VIPs is an onerous, arduous task, and when you can take your attention away from the centre of attraction and look at the men behind him, you can see their eyes, laser-like in intensity, darting across the crowd, across distant rooftops, across crowded vistas, looking for any lurking threat. When John Hinckley, Jr attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981, everyone remembers that the first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. Less well remembered is the shot that Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy took in the abdomen as he spread his body over the President to protect him.

That episode was followed by a celebration of the US Secret Service on celluloid. The more famous movie on the subject is In the Line of Fire (1993), in which Clint Eastwood stars as an ageing Agent Frank Horrigan, the sole surviving member from the John F Kennedy detail. Haunted by guilt at not foiling that assassination, he stops the current one after much huffing and puffing. The movie, more a psychological thriller than an action film, got glowing reviews including an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role for John Malkovich, who plays a disgruntled CIA agent. Then there was The Bodyguard (1992), in which Kevin Costner plays a former Secret Service agent protecting a famous singer (the late Whitney Houston) who falls in love with him.
The interesting thing here is that "Special Agent" Kevin Costner too is haunted by the assassination attempt on Reagan (who was shot at when the agent was off-duty ), suggesting that Secret Service personnel are often overwrought about their high-pressure job protecting highprofile people. In real life, they are very much human, far from being automatons. And not all of them are white as portrayed in movies through Costner and Eastwood. There are many black, Hispanic and female agents. Some years ago, I met an agent who was a third generation Sikh woman from California who was detailed to protect a senior Indian cabinet minister. She was proud of the Service and was on her way to a sensitive posting across the world.

The Secret Service in the immediate vicinity of the President and the White House is almost like family. They watched over Chelsea Clinton as she grew up from a girl to womanhood, and she in turn returned their affection. When Michelle Obama visited the Secret Service headquarters last year, she revealed how much the family loved their security detail and how the daughters (nicknamed Radiance and Rosebud in SS lingo) fought over their favourite agents. Even Obama joked about how when he wins a second term, by which time his daughters will be of dating age, the best present he can get for them is continued Secret Service protection.
Such a shame that the famed agency's name now stands besmirched by the peccadilloes of a few.

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