By Peter Baker
That was March 1981. At the moment John W. Hinckley Jr. opened fire, McCarthy was standing next to Reagan. "If the president had said to me, 'Tim, I have to have a private conversation with Mike Deaver, would you just step forward a little so you won't hear?' " McCarthy said, "the round that hit me would have hit the president."
The lessons the Secret Service has drawn from those few seconds of pandemonium are at the heart of an unprecedented legal battle showcased publicly for the first time yesterday in a federal courtroom. Should agents who guard President Clinton be forced to testify in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation? If they are, will future presidents fear being overheard so much that they push their guardians away? Could this give an assassin an opportunity to kill the nation's leader?
It is an argument of emotion versus law. Neither statute nor precedent exists to block law enforcement officers from providing evidence in a criminal probe. During yesterday's court hearing on his bid to compel agents to testify, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr said they "cannot blind themselves to evidence of possible violations of law." [Details, Page A23.]
But, citing experiences such as McCarthy's outside the Washington Hilton Hotel 17 years ago, Secret Service Director Lewis C. Merletti has privately predicted that cracking the agency's longstanding tradition of secrecy will result in the death of a president. A Justice Department lawyer echoed that view in open court yesterday, warning darkly, "It doesn't take much before you run the risk of assassination."
In the next few weeks, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson -- and possibly jurists up to the Supreme Court -- will have to decide whether that assessment is alarming or alarmist.
While the Secret Service has never before claimed a "protective privilege" to shield its agents from testifying, the fight with Starr is the latest skirmish in a perennial battle for the agency. Throughout its 97-year history of protecting presidents, the service has struggled to get close enough to stand in harm's way, often against the wishes of the people it was guarding.
"There's a constant tension between the president and the Secret Service," said Philip H. Melanson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and author of a book on the Secret Service. "They feel this is an invasion on their privacy even when they're not doing anything wrong."
Many agents have stories about presidents or other dignitaries bristling at their constant, hovering presence, particularly at the beginning of an administration when the newly inaugurated chief executive wants to demonstrate a continuing personal connection with the electorate. John R. Simpson, the longtime Secret Service director who retired in 1992, recalled one "protectee" demanding to know, "Are you here as a spy?" Soon after moving into the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly blamed the Secret Service for spreading a rumor that she had thrown a lamp at her husband.
In his book, "Protecting the President," the late agent Dennis V.N. McCarthy wrote, "This constant proximity can get on the nerves of both the Chief Executive and the agents who have to live with him."
But proximity is central to the Secret Service mission. Without it, some agents say, they cannot guarantee anyone's safety. Under federal law, the president cannot turn down Secret Service protection, but he can set limits, such as deciding how close agents can get and whether he will go to places they think are unsafe.
"If you don't have trust and confidence, you don't have proximity," said Edward P. Walsh, a retired agent who protected Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. "If you don't have proximity, you have an open door. . . . Some bad guy is going to walk through that open door."
While that may be the consensus view at the Secret Service, it is not universal even among the fraternity. Several other former agents scoff at the notion that presidents would put their lives at risk to cover up criminal conduct.
"That's nonsense," said Tony Sherman, one of the four retired Secret Service agents who provided tales of John F. Kennedy's philandering to author Seymour M. Hersh for a book published last year. "Presidents ask agents to step aside any time they are too close when they play golf. The [security] system is difficult to overcome. I don't think a president will think, 'The guys are going to blab about whatever I say.' "
The Secret Service was founded in 1865 not for security but to combat counterfeiters rampant in the post-Civil War era. It was not until William McKinley's assassination in 1901 that the government assigned the service the mission of guarding the commander-in-chief. In the years since, it also has been tasked with protecting their families, their vice presidents, their predecessors and would-be successors, and their visiting foreign counterparts.
To stay close to those they are guarding, Secret Service agents say they will go to unusual lengths, even disguising themselves to blend into events around them. They have dressed as soldiers, doctors, college professors and construction workers. When a president throws out the first baseball of the season, one of the umpires sometimes is an agent. During a U.S. tour by Pope John Paul II, an agent even posed as a priest, complete with collar -- and the telltale radio plug in his ear.
While Clinton shakes hands along a rope line, an agent typically stands just behind him with hands on the president's hips, ready to pick him up, pull him away or push him down at a moment's notice. Another agent may be holding near the president what appears to be a briefcase but is actually a hand-held bulletproof shield.
"I had an individual tell me, 'Get your hands off me' " when adopting the same approach, Simpson recalled in an interview. "And I told him, 'Well, I guess when somebody shoots at you, you're going to take it.' "
The simple presence of agents close to a president may discourage would-be killers from trying, the Secret Service argues.
Robert L. DeProspero, who headed Reagan's security detail for six years, recalled the example of a threatening letter-writer who called himself "Catman." When agents finally caught the man on a New York City subway, they discovered photographs showing that he had been just outside the fence at Gracie Mansion during an event, close enough to fire at the president, but with his shot seemingly blocked by agents.
"It really makes your heart jump," DeProspero said.
The service has used history in its arguments with Starr. Officials have prepared a presentation, according to individuals who have seen it, that examines how the proximity of guards figured in assassination attempts against everyone from President Gerald R. Ford to Britain's Prince Charles.
The Kennedy and George Wallace shootings, they point out, happened after agents' advice was ignored.
Yet this blunt talk of assassination when the issue at hand is a dispute over legal procedure has some critics suggesting that the Secret Service is engaging in scare tactics. They doubt the Lewinsky case will change the culture at the White House.
"There's a question of good manners. The agents should not be talking about purely private matters in purely private situations," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating (R), who oversaw the Secret Service as assistant treasury secretary during the Reagan administration. "But absent that, they are sworn law enforcement officers and the president is not above the law and they are not above the law."
Staff writer George Lardner Jr. contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company