The Secret Service's Dirty Little Secret?

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While the thought of intercepting bullets aimed at the President maintains its power to lure thrill-seekers into the ranks of the Secret Service, the latest news from Washington may give some of the most dedicated would-be heroes a reason to hesitate. On Wednesday, a group of black Secret Service agents filed a class action suit against the agency, charging that they were passed over for promotion because of their race. One of the plaintiffs is Reginald Moore, a 16-year veteran of highly selective and dangerous assignments, including a stint as a lead agent in President Clinton's protective detail. Moore says he was poised to take over a managerial post, but was preempted when a white agent Moore had originally trained got the job instead.

"This story is rife with ironies," says TIME Washington correspondent Jay Branegan. "In the last couple of years, there have been quite a few women and minorities in the presidential detail — an incredibly elite and dangerous position. These people are all willing to take a bullet for the President." Only when those same agents try to move into the managerial positions, adds Branegan, do they encounter resistance. Agency figures appear to bear out the allegations: Black agents make up just over 10 percent of the Secret Service ranks but less than 5 percent of those in management positions. Frustrated at what should be the apex of their careers, the plaintiffs recount years of "doing things the way they should be done," as Reginald Moore says — following the prescribed path, only to be stymied at the last step. Moore's story is not unique, and while the Secret Service spokespeople point to a number of blacks and women in leadership positions (of seven assistant directors, two are black and one is a woman), this lawsuit opens the agency's internal structure to an unaccustomed level of public inquiry. That scrutiny could force Secret Service officials to open their hiring books and answer some tough questions.