Last month the White House Correspondents Association released a report that critically examined the role of the Secret Service in limiting reporters' access to the president.
Viewing with alarm the increasing tendency of the Secret Service to function as a political rather than a security shield, the survey gave examples of occasions in which agents had protected the president from questions rather than from danger. The report concluded that there is little doubt "that the rapidly escalating security restrictions imposed on the White House press corps are often inconsistent and frequently used by the White House staff as a form of press management."
One of the most revealing passages of this well-researched report contains a quotation from chief Secret Service spokesman Robert A. Snow, who says he tells new agents "that dealing with the media is an adversarial job." Snow compares good agents to good reporters, saying that both are "aggressive and pushy."
As a reporter who did not contribute to the survey and who has been helped by the Secret Service more times than I can count, I found this comparison particularly troublesome. Adversarial relationships may be fine for the courtroom, but the news media are not hostile to presidential security and agents should not be trained to save a president from questions.
This report, which makes some careful recommendations for improving the process, is probably destined to reach the dustbin of history just a little ahead of the rest of us. I hope that isn't the case, for the problems it highlights go beyond the inevitable friction between two groups of professionals. The real question is how reasonable accessibility to the president can be maintained in a dangerous world where presidents are always potential targets of would-be assassins.
It is not a question of whether anyone likes the news media. A long time ago, H.L. Mencken put that question in perspective when he said: "Heavens, who could ever like the press? We get all the best seats for free."
But whether one likes the media or not, most thoughtful Americans would probably agree that press agency and security are different lines of work. The confusion between the two in the Reagan White House was evident on the president's recent European trip, where it was a commonplace observation that the U.S. security entourage spared President Reagan from questions that other national leaders answer as a matter of course.
This overprotectiveness puts our country in a bad light. One Portuguese official confided to me that it seemed at times as if Reagan were an ancient monarch rather than a modern president representing a country whose name is synonymous with personal freedom.
But the more important reason to take the issue seriously is that the Secret Service's preoccupation with the press corps, from which no threat to the president's safety has ever emerged, detracts from its basic function of protecting the president from physical harm.
The press corps, easily identified and even more easily controlled, keeps the Secret Service preoccupied with the busy work of distancing the news media and saving the president from annoying questions. This inevitably diverts the Secret Service from its real job, as Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III or any of his aides could see for themselves if they spent a day in the trenches with the news media.
The Secret Service is protected by the reluctance of reporters, including this one, to write about lapses in security. They occur, however, in part because the resources of the Secret Service are heavily engaged with the news media.
On the day Reagan was heckled and jeered by Communists at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, U.S. reporters were awakened before dawn in Madrid so that they could be paraded through magnetometers and have their bags searched before they left Spain, even though they were miles from the president. They were searched again when they left the press room in France and were subjected to a third "magging," this one by the French, before they entered the parliament, where they were confined to the balcony.
In contrast, the leftists who heckled Reagan from a few feet away had entered the parliament without confronting any unusual security precautions. They had the advantage of not being members of the White House press corps.
In defending redundant searches, Secret Service agents sometimes say that someone could place a bomb in a reporter's bag surreptitiously. This would be a reasonable argument if the same standard were applied to the bags of White House staff members, who usually are allowed closer to the president than reporters are.
The fact that a double standard exists suggests that something other than security impels the Secret Service's treatment of reporters it has investigated and given credentials. And this double standard should be changed, not because reporters complain or because the news media are so wonderful, but because security really should be the paramount consideration of the Secret Service.