Justice: A Secret Side to the Secret Service

Secret service officers learning to protect the president spend hours inside "shoot houses" on the agency's training grounds in Beltsville, Md. On the outside, the buildings are made up to look like embassies or government offices. Inside, they resemble movie soundstages—big, empty spaces with changeable scenery where trainees, armed with paintball guns, simulate harrowing situations they may face guarding the commander in chief and other VIPs.

About midday on April 16, a Secret Service trainer unlocked a shoot house to set it up for a drill session. Officers are trained to be ready for anything when they walk inside that building. But the sergeant, who is African-American, wasn't prepared for what he saw: a noose, hanging from the railing of an overhead staircase. "It was a solid rope … about eight feet long, and the noose fell at about neck level," says a witness who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the case.

The Secret Service's response to this incident was, to say the least, cautious. The agency called in its internal-affairs unit to investigate. A white instructor at the facility admitted he'd hung the rope, and was put on paid leave. But instead of making an example of the officer to signal that racial bigotry won't be tolerated, the agency quibbled over whether it was a noose at all. It "didn't resemble a traditional noose," says Renee Triplett, the agent in charge of the training center. She allows that it "could be perceived as a noose; it was certainly seen that way by my senior staff." Triplett, who is African-American, says the agency is taking the incident seriously: "Look at me, this can't be something I can condone." Yet the officer responsible, who hasn't been named by the agency, insisted he didn't mean any offense, and his superiors seem to believe him. "At this time, there is no clear indication that he had intended a racial message," says Service spokesman Eric Zahren.

The agency has been similarly defensive about racist e-mails among senior Service officials that emerged last month. One allegedly sent in 2003 was titled "Harlem Spelling Bee," which contained a list of "black" definitions of words. Another e-mail included a joke about a lynching. Service officials call the e-mails "deplorable," and the agency's director sent out a stern memo telling employees that messages sent from work e-mail accounts "must not reflect poorly" on the Service. But Deputy Assistant Director James E. Mackin says the e-mails—two dozen or so out of 20 million received and sent over 16 years—don't point to a larger problem. "Do these 10 or so e-mails represent our agency fairly? I don't think so," he says. The e-mails, officials insist, are unfortunate, isolated incidents.

But the agency has a credibility problem, in part because the e-mails emerged only after years of haggling in court. Since 2000, the Service has been battling a lawsuit brought by 10 named current and former African-American agents. Their testimony states that white superiors routinely passed them over for promotion, while less-qualified whites rose more quickly to senior positions. Some who complained, they say, found their careers stalled. The agents are seeking a maximum of $300,000 per officer in damages, but say they are mostly interested in forcing the agency to change its ways.

The Service has shown little interest in doing that. The FBI, which faced a similar discrimination lawsuit from black employees in the early 1990s, settled the case and put in place new hiring and promotion rules to avoid any appearance of racial bias. But the Secret Service has refused even to acknowledge a problem. Since 2000, the agency has strung the case along, at times allegedly resisting orders by a federal magistrate to turn over evidence in the case. Only last month did the Service at last release the racist e-mails, a few weeks after it turned over thousands of pages of records and internal memos.

This week the judge, who has repeatedly expressed her irritation at the agency's slow response to her demands, is set to hold a hearing on whether the Service should be severely sanctioned by the court. Legal sources involved in the case, who asked for anonymity discussing litigation strategy, say the agency's attorneys are concerned they might have pushed the judge too far. Government attorneys worry the judge could pronounce a "default" judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, or possibly limit defense evidence the Service lawyers could present at trial.

The agents' lawyers say the alleged stonewalling is evidence that Service officials knew there was something to hide—and that the e-mails and noose incident illustrate a "good ole boy" culture that tolerates racial bigotry. Unsurprisingly, agency officials tell a very different story. They haven't settled the case, they say, because the agents' complaints aren't true. Settling "would have been an easier road to take, but our agency is bound by principle," Zahren, the spokesman, tells NEWSWEEK. "We're not perfect. But when you feel you're right, you stick to your guns." Zahren says Service records show that far from being held back, black agents have moved up in rank as quickly as whites. "It actually takes less time for African-Americans to be promoted to managerial levels" than it does for whites, he says. The Service gave NEWSWEEK a stack of statistics to back up this claim.

The agents' lawyers, of course, have enlisted number crunchers of their own who argue that just the opposite is true. As with most disputes about discrimination, the truth isn't easy to sort out. A maybe-noose and a handful of racist e-mails don't, by themselves, amount to a pervasive culture of racism—and bigotry in the ranks isn't necessarily evidence that blacks have been systematically denied promotion. African-Americans—including some of the agents suing the Service—have held very senior positions within the agency, and some of the supervisors who blocked promotions of black agents were themselves black. Yet African-American agents say there's nothing subtle about racial tension at the Service, and it is understood that to rise beyond a certain point takes patience, and a willingness to keep quiet.

All 10 of the plaintiffs are or were Special Agents, the Service's elite members who protect the president and other high government officials. The man behind the lawsuit is no rabble-rouser. Reginald (Ray) Moore, a 24-year veteran of the Service, is a GS-15 supervisor—the highest career civil-service rank—and the head of recruitment for the agency. Now 49, Moore says his promotion came only after years of being passed over by less-qualified whites.

On paper, at least, Moore looked like he was on the Service's fast track. He was a member of President Bill Clinton's security detail. In 1999, he headed a team of agents who protected four presidents—Clinton, Bush, Carter and Ford—at the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein. As a reward for excellent performance, he was made acting head of the Joint Operations Center, which runs security for the White House complex, with an understanding the job would become permanent. Instead, he said in a sworn statement, the position "was given to a white Agent who had never been on the President's Protective Detail and had never been in the Joint Operations Center."

Service officials say Moore was not a victim of discrimination. One of the supervisors in charge of deciding who would get the job, they say, was also black. At that time, the Service says, there was an agencywide push to put experienced agents into the field, and Moore—who was reassigned to Dallas—was one of them.

In the years that followed, Moore says he put in for numerous other posts— but often, less-experienced white agents moved in ahead of him. According to court documents, on two occasions, positions Moore sought went to relatives of former directors of the Service. Deputy Assistant Director Mackin would not comment on specific hiring practices, but says, "In the Secret Service, we have a number of agents who are children, siblings, spouses or otherwise related to others in the Service. It's not unusual in law enforcement."

Stuck at a GS-13 pay level for 11 years, an unusually long time for an agent with his experience, Moore first filed an administrative complaint. Then, in 2000, he and nine other black agents with similar grievances sued. Only later was he promoted.

Other plaintiffs in the suit who spoke to NEWSWEEK gave more-blatant examples of alleged racial intolerance. One, Camilla Simms, a 41-year-old special agent in the Chicago field office, joined the Service in 2002. She says she was surprised by the casual racism in the office. One example stands out: in 2003, the Service gave out promotional calendars featuring a photograph of two agents, a white man and a black woman. Walking through the office, she saw that several of the calendars in white agents' offices had the black woman's face blotted out with white paper. She and a few others complained and the calendars were eventually removed, but after that she says she was "ignored and ostracized" by some white colleagues. "I was the only black female agent there at the time," she tells NEWSWEEK. "As a police detective, I was given the opportunity to shine. Then I came to the Secret Service and I felt like I had the plague." (A Service spokesman had no immediate comment.)

Despite the raw emotions that the case has exposed, the agents suing the Service say they are deeply loyal to the agency. Some agents worry the lawsuit could leave the public with the false impression that the agency won't give a black candidate—or president—the same level of protection that they would a white one. Black and white agents NEWSWEEK spoke to insisted that would never happen: they are professionals, and neither white nor black agents, they said, would allow personal feelings to interfere with their work. "We protect the office of the president and whoever is housed there," Moore says. "Our protectees get the best protection available, period." Whatever the agency's faults, he says, when it comes to safeguarding the lives of those in its charge, the Secret Service is colorblind.