1. Opinion

Perspective: Secrets of the Secret Service

No power couple cut a wider social swath in post-Civil War Washington than President Ulysses S. Grant's attorney general, George H. Williams, and his wife, Kate.

Then Kate Williams' abandoned son from a previous marriage spoiled things by showing up in the capital, gambling and consorting with prostitutes — sometimes bringing them to receptions at the Williamses' grand home on Rhode Island Avenue. He financed this embarrassing lifestyle by blackmailing the attorney general.

So George Williams called in the chief of the Secret Service, Hiram C. Whitley. Get rid of my stepson, he said, and do it quietly. No blood. Whitley promptly obliged. Undercover Secret Service men got the youth drunk, convinced him, after he regained consciousness, that he had committed murder while intoxicated, then helped him "escape" to Veracruz, Mexico — where they abandoned him. He never bothered the Williamses again.

Now that's a Secret Service scandal. At least it would have been, if the story had come out before Whitley told it decades later in his memoir, a book that few people read in the year of its publication, 1894, and even fewer have read since.

Still, the tale provides a dash of historical context for the travails of today's Secret Service, an agency justly proud of its record but never free of controversy, even in its earliest days.

Congress established the Secret Service as a division of the Treasury Department in 1865; its mission was to combat counterfeiting of the new paper currency issued during the Civil War. As such, it was the first-ever federal detective force, long before the FBI. (The Secret Service still investigates counterfeiters; it did not take on presidential bodyguard duty full-time until after the 1901 assassination of William McKinley.)

Hiram C. Whitley was its second chief and a genuine innovator. During his tenure, which began in 1869, the Secret Service instituted a written code of conduct, developed files on criminals, photos included — and authorized the first Secret Service badges.

Whitley busted not only counterfeiters but also smugglers of cigars, liquor and diamonds in New York. Long before J. Edgar Hoover's 10 Most Wanted, Whitley manipulated the press with juicy leaks and colorful tales of his agents' exploits.

Whitley's finest hour was the Secret Service infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. At the special request of the Justice Department, his disguised operatives fanned out across the South, gathering intelligence — often with the aid of African-Americans — that helped bring white terrorists to justice. The crackdown enabled black voters to participate freely in the 1872 elections.

Whitley boasted lavishly of this noble effort, yet he was hardly noble by nature. A teenage runaway whose pre-Civil War resume included fraudulent pawnbroking in Massachusetts and kidnapping fugitive slaves in Kansas, he had served during the war as a hit man for the Union army in New Orleans, dispatching criminals and Confederate infiltrators with no questions asked.

In short, for Whitley, law enforcement and covert operations were more of an adventure than a mission — and the ends always justified the means. Even his first klan-fighting job, a special assignment in Georgia in 1868 prior to his Secret Service tenure, was marred by credible allegations that he had tortured a black witness.

Confronted after the war about his slave-catching past, Whitley unapologetically argued that he had simply been obeying the Fugitive Slave Law.

In due course, Whitley found himself hauled before Congress to answer charges that his men were pocketing contraband and otherwise abusing their power. Some criticism was politically motivated; Southerners and their Northern sympathizers despised Whitley's covert war on the klan. But there was more than a little truth to the charges.

As his dirty trick on behalf of the Williamses showed, Whitley relished intrigue for its own sake; by the mid 1870s, even his superiors at the Treasury Department thought that the Secret Service and its formerly useful boss had gotten out of control.

Whitley's downfall came in 1874, when his men became entangled in a bizarre conspiracy to frame opponents of the District of Columbia's pro-Grant government for the theft of documents from a government strongbox. The Safe Burglary Case, as it was known, was perhaps the first domestic intelligence scandal in U.S. history, eerily similar to Watergate. Though Whitley's precise role was never clarified, he was forced to resign and faced a federal trial — which ended in a hung jury.

Whitley left the capital and moved to Emporia, Kan., where he ran a successful hotel and built an opera house. He died at the age of 84 in 1919, a man of sizable wealth but unwarranted obscurity.

For today's far different Secret Service, and its now-former director, Julia Pierson, her predecessor's rise and fall does offer one possibly comforting moral: There is life after Washington.

© 2014 Washington Post