May 28, 2008 -- They are the stoic men and women of the Secret Service. Guarding presidents and dignitaries, keeping them safe, even if duty calls one of them to do as he or she is trained and step in front of a bullet.
The best of the best, they are immortalized in Hollywood dramas such as "In the Line of Fire."
But now that pristine image is being challenged by a lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 100 current and former black agents which alleges they were discriminated against in promotions.
Desmond Hogan, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in their suit against the Secret Service, says "we have, through the evidence we've developed in this case, demonstrated that there is a pattern of discrimination in the promotion process of the Secret Service."
The Secret Service flatly rejects the allegations, but the lawsuit has led to the discovery of troubling internal e-mails circulated among senior Secret Service managers.
One video e-mail attachment depicts an interracial couple — a black man and a white woman — lying on the ground kissing, and then rolling over onto a white sheet. The shot then reveals a group of Ku Klux Klan members surrounding the couple and a burning cross.
That video, according to court documents, made the rounds among senior Secret Service agents.
One of the agents who was recently on the detail of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is under investigation for allegedly forwarding a January 2005 e-mail that included a crude sexual joke about blacks and American Indians.
That agent has since been promoted. It is unclear what disciplinary action, if any, he will face.
Other messages target prominent black Americans, from activists to entertainers.
A 2003 e-mail sent to several senior agents jokes about the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his wife being killed, saying their deaths "certainly wouldn't be a great loss."
Another white senior supervisor, apparently bitter towards the Rev. Al Sharpton and angry at Ruben Studdard for winning "American Idol" in 2003 over Clay Aiken, allegedly wrote, "Reverse discrimination and political correctness are destroying virtually every aspect of American life."
"I think these e-mails confirm what our statistics show," Hogan said. "They confirm the anecdotes that have been told to us by our clients and others, that there is a culture of racism at the Secret Service."
It's not just e-mails — a noose was recently discovered at a Secret Service training facility outside of Washington, D.C. The service thus far has declined to release pictures of the noose.
24-year veteran Secret Service Agent Ray Moore is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. He agreed to an interview with ABC News.
"I firmly believe that I have been discriminated against, and I know that I've been discriminated against, and I know other African-American agents have been discriminated against because of the system that the Secret Service has in place of hiring, promoting, evaluating, transferring," he said.
Moore said he is not surprised by the e-mails or the noose. Not surprised, but he is angry.
"I don't see anything funny about making a joke about the possible assassination of Jesse Jackson and his wife. I never see the humor in sharing anything about the Klan," he said. "So, there's nothing funny about any of these e-mails. These are not jokes."
What is "the most dismaying," Moore said, is that the e-mails were allegedly circulated among people in the upper levels of the Secret Service.
"These are special agents in charge, assistant directors, deputy directors … people who have helped set policy. People who determine who gets hired," he said.
"These are the people that sign off on promotion evaluation. These are the people that sign off on disciplinary action. That's the most frightening part of it," Moore said, "Is that these people may express and espouse these types of views and then have the power to deny people certain opportunities in this agency."
But new information disclosed to ABC News Wednesday evening raises questions about Moore.
In preparation for a hearing scheduled for Thursday on the discrimination lawsuit, Justice Department attorneys filed documents on behalf of the Secret Service with the court that show Moore sent several racially offensive e-mails to friends and co-workers in 2003 and 2004.
Messages sent from his Secret Service e-mail account include a comparison of black, white and Hispanic wives and how they handle household chores, parenting differences between black and white mothers and a list entitled "No U D'ient," emulating vernacular sometimes associated with low-income African-Americans and including lines that mock those who live in government housing and use food stamps.
Another e-mail with the subject line "Oh no she didn't" included a photo file called "dayum_he_dark" of an obese bride standing next to a groom whose dark skin complexion causes him to appear faded into the background, and another photo showing an overweight woman in a skimpy outfit.
E-mail addresses visible in the message chains indicate that the e-mails circulated to people working at the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
Reached by phone Wednesday night, Moore declined to comment. ABC News contacted his attorney, who called the government's filing a "sideshow."
"To the extent they are singling out Ray Moore, there is no excuse for white high level Secret Service supervisors to be laughing at racist e-mails including the assassination of black leaders, images of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings," Hogan said.
Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said the allegations of discrimination by Moore and the other black agents have no merit.
"We're very proud of our history, we're very proud of our people and diversity is part of both of those. So we stand strong behind our record of diversity," he said. "Quite frankly, the numbers and the facts don't support the allegations that there has been any discrimination aimed at African-Americans who have sought promotion to any supervisory level within the service. It just frankly doesn't support it."
According to the service, African-Americans are promoted at a faster rate than their white counterparts.
The Secret Service claims the aggrieved black agents are simply trying to embarrass the agency, during an unprecedented presidential campaign that includes an African-American candidate who has a legitimate chance to become president of the United States.
Attorneys for Moore and the other black agents said the agency's promotion statistics are distorted and that the court overseeing the lawsuit has repeatedly criticized the service for destroying documents. The plaintiffs claim a cover-up — a charge the service vehemently denies.
More than 300,000 pages of documents have been filed for this one lawsuit, but the service is facing criticism that it's dragging its feet.
"It's a lot of information. It's a lot of documents ƒ As far as I know, really unprecedented in terms of a discovery demand on a government agency," Zahren said.
As for the e-mails, Zahren said the Secret Service is "very concerned and we are disappointed and to a certain extent, we are embarrassed by those."
"We not only hold our people to generally held standards, we hold them to a higher standard. We always have and so we are concerned. And out of that concern, we certainly took immediate action in investigating them and getting to the bottom of them."
"But again," Zahren said, "they should be held in context. They shouldn't be made to reflect or define either individuals or the Secret Service as an agency."
Zahren said that when agents receive those types of e-mails, they're supposed to just delete them, but are required to alert their supervisor in the event of an allegation of racial insensitivity. So far, Secret Service officials say, there is no evidence that anyone involved in this case alerted his or her superiors.
Concerning the noose incident, "There was an immediate inquiry and then ultimately a formal inspection internally that is being wrapped up to gather all the facts," Zahren said.
"There is some question as to whether there was intent, but regardless of intent there should be a sensitivity and a level of sensitivity on the part of our employees that we've always striven to achieve," he added.
Special agent Renee Triplett, who is black and runs the training center where the noose was found, said the agency should not be judged by the mistakes of a few.
"While we're not perfect and maybe our management style don't always hit the perfect mark, I think we do a good job trying to reach that and I think the leadership in this agency has done a good job," she said.
"I didn't get the promotion that I wanted when I wanted," Triplett said. "But did I get it when I was the most qualified candidate or applicant or when I was one of the most qualified? I think I was given a fair chance to be competitive in my peers."
Secret Service officials said they want more diversity and worry these ugly allegations could cripple those efforts, tarnishing the Secret Service star.
Hogan, the attorney for the black agents, said that despite the court battles along the way, the suit is an "opportunity to finally cure what has been a longstanding racist culture" at the Secret Service.
"But everyone can win here," he said. "The Secret Service can win, the leadership can win, my clients can win, if we all come together. Sit down together and come to an agreement here where the Secret Service does the right thing by implementing a fair promotion system."