One of the least edifying sidelights of the horrible events of this week has been the tendency to scapegoat the Secret Service. The sound of gunshots and wail of sirens had hardly faded before self-appointed experts were bounding out of the woodwork with their personal theories on "lax security."

Repeatedly throughout that afternoon and evening, Americans saw a newsman from CBS and a cameraman from ABC announcing that the Secret Service had allowed the gunman to "penetrate" a restricted press area. We were self-righteously informed that these two newsmen had in fact warned the Secret Service about this dangerous penetration: the old familiar "if only they had listened to me" refrain.

The local NBC affiliate picked up all this, primarily from interviews with reporters and cameramen, and ran a piece Monday night that questioned whether this "penetration" was a violation of security procedures that had contributed to the attack on the president.

All this is as wrong as it is unfair. There was no restricted press area on that sidewalk , and there usually is not in such situations. The press had been escorted to the front of a public area by the Secret Service, as a courtesy.

The difference between a restricted press area and a public area is not hard to spot. A restricted or dedicated press area has -- as one might expect -- ropes or barricades on all four sides, not just one. There is a gate with an agent and usually a White House press staffer to check credentials of those admitted. It is hard to believe that those two news people did not know the difference when they made their statements.

The press always prefers a restricted press area because that makes its job easier. The White House usually is not willing to invest the extra effort for an event as routine as a brief walk to the motorcade. This continuing argument has something to do with how well the White House Press Office and the White House press do their jobs, and nothing whatever to do with security.

There will be, as there should be, an internal inquiry by the Secret Service to determine whether mistakes were made or whether there are lessons to be learned. The two possibilities are not necessarily the same thing. The FBI will also look into security procedures as a part of its investigation of the incident. There are rumblings from the Hill about committee hearings. Those inquiries ought to be thorough. They also ought not to be prejudged -- either way. In the meantime, it might be worthwhile for all the rest of us to look to our own skirts.

The Secret Service must deal with three groups -- the White House staff, the press and the general public. All three of those groups -- for their own reasons -- constantly push for less strict security procedures. In four years at the White House, I never a staffer, a reporter or a private citizen berate a Secret Service agent for being too flexible. I did here, because I was the source of some of it, a constant patter of complaints and pressure in the other direction.

Staffers try to persuade the president ot stand up in a motorcade when the Secret Service wants him to sit down. We encourage him to make the unscheduled swing by the fence or rope line to shake those hands. We slip Aunt Sally, who shows up at the last minute, into the press or VIP area so she can get a better glimpse of the president.

White House reporters and photographers complain constantly about the convenience involved in checking passes and bags or about agents who are working too close to the president and blocking their camera range. They, too, want the rules bent at the last minute to accommodate aunts, uncles, cousins, girlfriends and boyfriends.

Private citizens curse and phone the local call-in show about the delays caused by a presidential motorcade. They abuse the agent who takes too long to check their handbags or won't accept their word that they are the president's second cousins once removed and therefore should not be kept behind a rope line.

Local editors and news directors call in hours after credentialing has closed to get one extra press pass for another cameraman or their wife's bridge partner. When the request is denied because of inadequate time for a security check, the language often turns purple and the First Amendment is invariably invoked.

Secret Service agents are not perfect. I and most reporters covering the White House have had our run-ins with them and found that they could be as hardheaded and short-tempered as we could. One agent and I almost came to blows over a camera truck position during a New York campaign stop. I still think I was right.

It is also natural in a time of anger and frustration to case about for a target for those emotions. But let's back off a bit and at least try to get our facts straight. There is no excuse for seeking emotional release at the expense of a group of men and women whose professionalism and sense of duty put most of us to shame.