Life in the Secret Service

For Patrick Cruise it was a life of hounding, harassment, and humiliation

Those who have worked with Tom say the agency shouldn't have been surprised he would apply the same determination that made him a topnotch investigator to the mission of exonerating his son. "He's like a mongoose," laughs Bill Montgomery, former head of the service's field office on the island of Cyprus and now retired in Ohio. "If you have somebody like that coming after you, he's going to keep coming." Hunt, the retired postal inspector from Boston who worked with the elder Cruise for years on mail fraud cases, says he's never met an agent more aggressive or more knowledgeable of the law. "Tom had more of these [arrest] stats than any other agent in the Boston office, and that just comes from sheer hard work," Hunt proclaims. "There are a lot of agents that had a lot of respect for Tom. He loved the Secret Service."

How does a young agent, who inherited from his father a profound regard for the Secret Service along with classic Irish looks, end up on the agency's enemies list? How does a father who has built a reputation and a network of friends from 21 years in the service decide to wage war against the entity that defines his life? The Cruises claim Patrick is a victim of a perception problem: It appeared as though he fell out of line in an agency dedicated to keeping its members in lockstep.

Patrick doesn't know why he was forced out of the only career he ever wanted
Steve Satterwhite
Patrick doesn't know why he was forced out of the only career he ever wanted

This, unfortunately, is nothing new in the culture of law enforcement. Last week's indictment of thirteen Miami police officers for crimes committed to cover up a police shooting is just the latest local incident. Newspapers in every major city in America have reported other stunning examples of unethical or criminal behavior committed by a minority of federal agents working under the auspices of the FBI, the DEA, ATF, or U.S. Customs. In most cases the problem could be summed up thusly: Pressure to nail bad guys (sometimes whether guilty or not) was high; authorities were willing to wink at questionable tactics that got results; and the likelihood of facing serious consequences, if caught, was low because law-enforcement agencies are good at protecting their own. The Boston Heraldran a story May 21, 2001, detailing a flubbed Secret Service and Boston police investigation that incorrectly pinned a 1999 bomb threat against President Clinton on a Massachusetts postal worker. Two years and $30,000 in debt later, the man was quietly exonerated by authorities. He plans to sue.

The murky side of the well-respected agency was illuminated in a lawsuit filed last year by more than three-dozen current and former black agents, alleging decades of discrimination. Their stories are the familiar and disturbing tales told before by others in federal agencies and in many police departments. Bill Montgomery, a former agent involved in the suit, says he loved his job, but certain influential members of the Secret Service made it hard on him. Based on his own experiences with discrimination, he is not entirely surprised by what happened to Patrick Cruise. "I had a [special agent in charge] who told me that as long as he was in the service, I wouldn't get promoted," the 29-year career veteran remembers. "And he was right: I didn't get promoted until he was gone. There's some real good guys, but the good guys won't stand up for you because they fear retaliation. That's the way it is with the Secret Service."

Tom Cruise believes his son's case is indicative of a fundamental problem trickling down from the highest levels of this tight-knit and rarely questioned agency with a direct line to the president. The agency, he predicts, is going to earn "a huge black eye" in public perception before it's all over because of the lengths it has shown itself willing to go to destroy one of its own. "If we are going to throw the Constitution and due process out the window for one of our agents, what happens to the poor innocent person on the street?" he asks. "Luckily we have insurance and we know how to fight these guys. [But the average person], how do they come up with $175,000 to defend themselves?"

Tom says the Secret Service has tried to retaliate against him by going after his job at the Social Security Administration because he has vigorously defended his son through letters and phone calls to high-ranking officials. He has also asked the Treasury Department's Office of Inspector General to investigate possible illegal acts committed by a half-dozen current and former officials of the Secret Service.

After more than three years of investigations and a formal complaint filed by Patrick to the EEOC in January 2000, the agency fired him November 24, 2000. The service alleged that Patrick left his post at the duty desk of the Miami office for up to 28 minutes (although they had difficulty proving this time frame in an administrative hearing). The desk agent is responsible for monitoring the phones and radio channels coming into the office, an important job in case a special agent in the field has an emergency. That Saturday afternoon there was no one in the field and no calls had come into the office. Patrick claims he was away from the desk for just a few minutes, on a bathroom and coffee break down the hall.

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