Lost amid the sardonic humor of late-night TV comics and the metaphors of editorial critics of the Cheney-Whittington hunting accident is the role of Secret Service agents who accompanied Vice President Cheney to the Armstrong ranch. On the surface at least, their conduct was anything but accidental…and anything but appropriate.

Either of his own volition or on instructions from Mr. Cheney, a Secret Service man notified the local sheriff immediately after the accident. But when a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the ranch to investigate, he was barred from speaking to the vice president. It wasn’t until the next morning that Mr. Cheney spoke with any law enforcement officer. Meanwhile, President Bush, Andrew Card, and Karl Rove had all been notified that an accident had occurred and that Vice President Cheney had fired the shotgun and injured Mr. Whittington. Without having spoken to Mr. Cheney, the sheriff’s office nonetheless announced that no liquor had been involved and that it was an accident. Case closed.

There was no way the sheriff or his deputy could have known this for a fact. If Vice President Cheney had in fact been drinking before the incident, he might have been guilty of a misdemeanor or even a felony. Firing a deadly weapon while under the influence and causing injury to another person is at least as serious as driving while drunk and causing injury. But by the time Mr. Cheney actually faced the sheriff the following morning, the question of alcohol consumption had become moot.

Since President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, the Secret Service has been charged with protecting the president, vice president, and their families. Agents work for the government and by extension for the public, not for the men and women they guard. Their salaries are paid with public funds. This is fine to the extent they keep the president and vice president safe from evildoers; it is not fine to the extent they save a vice president from embarrassment or shield him from being charged with a crime.

Who or what gives the Secret Service the authority to prevent a sheriff’s deputy from doing his sworn duty? In this case, the clear inference is that Vice President Cheney had something to hide…either that he was intoxicated, or needed more time to square his story with the White House’s desired spin before facing a law enforcement officer. That’s understandable from his point of view, especially given Mr. Cheney’s controlling personality and obsessive distrust of the news media. From the public’s standpoint, however, for Secret Service agents to have prevented a sheriff’s deputy from conducting a normal investigation of a possible crime should itself be worth a thorough investigation. It’s possible charges should be filed for improper interference with a law officer.

At this point, President Bush is content to “move on.” Are the American people content to do the same? Is the Secret Service not answerable for its misconduct?