How the U.S. Secret Service Works

U.S. President Donald Trump walks his wife Melania, surrounded by Secret Service officers outside the White House, as the presidential inaugural parade winds through Washington, D.C. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

You've seen them in the movies and on TV. They're big, serious-looking guys clad in spiffy suits and ties perpetually clustered around the president, with shades shielding their eyes and earpieces with wires snaking across the backs of their necks.

This is certainly one snapshot of U.S. Secret Service agents at work. But it's not the only one. The other main job of Secret Service agents is to combat counterfeiting and money fraud. Presidential protection is, in some ways, a secondary function.


The Secret Service was created in 1865, at the close of the American Civil War. At that time, a massive amount of counterfeit American currency was circulating around the country. To help quash the problem, President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service as a division of the U.S. Treasury Department [source: United States Secret Service].

In 1894, its agents began informal protection of President Grover Cleveland. But then President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and Congress formally requested that the Secret Service protect all presidents. The first Secret Service White House Detail began in 1902, and consisted of just two men.

Fast forward to today, and some 6,500 people work for the Secret Service as special agents (3,200 employees), uniformed division officers (1,300), and administrative, professional and technical support personnel (2,000-plus) [source: United States Secret Service]. Women are eligible for all positions, and one woman, Julia Pierson, briefly led the agency as director, between 2013 and 2014. In April 2017, President Donald Trump selected Randolph "Tex" Alles as the agency's 25th director.

Although the agency has long been admired, recent scandals involving employee misconduct and security breaches have tarnished its reputation. In addition, employee morale is low. In a 2016 survey of federal employees working at 305 agencies, the Secret Service was rated last for employee satisfaction [source: Leonnig].

The agency's low morale may be traced, in part, to a heavy workload. Around the time of the survey, the Secret Service had 500 fewer employees than it was authorized to hire. Since then, the pace of hiring has risen; an additional 800 employees were added to the payroll in 2017, in part to deal with the travels of Trump to his many weekend homes, as well as the travels of his adult children and their spouses all over the world.


History of the Secret Service

The assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 caused the Secret Service's mission to expand to include presidential protection. Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

When the Secret Service was started in 1865, counterfeiting was a major concern. Back then, an astounding one-third to one-half of the money flowing around the country was fake. Hence, President Abraham Lincoln's creation of the Secret Service to ferret out the criminals. Just two years later, in 1867, the agency's duties were expanded to include nabbing people trying to defraud the government via smuggling, mail robbery, land fraud and other means [sources: Blakemore, United States Secret Service].

Ironically, Lincoln was killed the evening he signed the legislation to create the Secret Service. But it wasn't until President William McKinley's assassination in 1901 — the third of a sitting president — that the Secret Service's duties were expanded to include presidential protection. Over the next century, the presidential protection piece was constantly tweaked, often as the result of another assassination or attempt.


Today, Secret Service protection is mandated for the president and vice president and their immediate families; former presidents, spouses and minor children under age 16; major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses; and foreign heads of state and their spouses when they're visiting the U.S. (A president's adult children may decline protection.)

Secret Service protection is also mandated at events that are designated National Special Security Events by the head of the Department of Homeland Security — for instance, the Super Bowl. At these events the Secret Service will take the lead in security operations. It will collaborate with local law enforcement to ensure that everyone — both dignitaries and the general public — are kept safe [source: United States Secret Service.]

Over this same 100-plus years, other changes have occurred inside the agency. For example, the Secret Service assumed control of the White House Police Force in 1930 and the Treasury Guard Force, now called the Treasury Police Force, in 1937. In 1971, the agency swore in its first five female special agents. And in 2003, the Secret Service was transferred from the Treasury Department to the new Department of Homeland Security [source: United States Secret Service].

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the subsequent passage of the USA Patriot Act, the agency was tasked with creating a national network of Electronic Crimes Task Forces (ECTFs) based on a model then being used in New York. The ECTFs work to prevent and combat attacks on America's citizens, institutions and critical structures, namely those involving cybercrime.

The ECTFs are composed of local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, plus prosecutors and members of private industry and academia. Everyone on the task forces works together to bring his or her special expertise to fight such crimes as bank fraud, viruses and worms, internet threats and identity theft. Today there are 39 ECTFs scattered across the nation and in Europe. In addition, the Secret Service collaborates with another 46 Financial Crimes Task Forces [sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, United States Secret Service].


The Protection Mission

The 1993 movie "In the Line of Fire" (starring Clint Eastwood) typifies the Hollywood image of the Secret Service. Bruce McBroom/Sygma via Getty Images

The protection piece of the Secret Service's operation is its most visible. Yet while it looks rather glamorous, it can be a difficult job with a high burnout rate, especially if for those assigned to presidential protection. The hours are brutal — two weeks of a day shift, followed by two weeks on a midnight shift, then two weeks on an evening shift and finally two weeks of training. Then the cycle repeats. And, of course, agents may have to take a bullet to protect someone else [source: Nguyen].

People who are permanently protected, like the president and first lady, have "details," or groups of agents who are assigned to them. Agents tapped for the prestigious Presidential Protective Division, or PPD, are generally handpicked from a cadre that has proven itself over the years. But Secret Service agents don't officially work for the president — they work for the Department of Homeland Security [source: Nguyen].


Not every agent working in protection is shadowing a VIP, ready to grab his gun or wrestle a suspicious individual to the ground. Many agents do advance work and threat assessment, trying to prevent an incident from occurring. This involves identifying potential risks to the individuals being protected, and scouting out spots where the protected individual will be present.

When the president travels, for example, every hotel employee who will somehow be in contact with the presidential entourage is subjected to a background check. If anyone on the staff has a criminal history, even a minor one, that person will not be allowed to work that day. And the floor where the president is staying — as well as the ones above and below it — are cordoned off to everyone except members of the security detail [sources: United States Secret Service, Marum].

Agents assigned to physically protect the president accompany him everywhere — to physical examinations and even into the restroom. If the president likes to jog, as former President Bill Clinton did, an agent runs along with him. Some agents in the PPD film every motorcade in case there's an attack; a video could provide useful evidence. When the president is home, agents always watch his food preparation to ensure no one is mixing in toxic ingredients. When he travels, Navy stewards come along to prepare his meals, again under the watch of the Service [source: Rossum].

All of this watchfulness comes at a price. In fiscal year 2017, the Secret Service was spending more than $750 million on protective operations, or nearly half of its $1.8 billion budget [source: Fandos]. But in August 2017, the Secret Service had to request a budget increase, saying it had enough money for the remainder of this fiscal year, but that runs through Sept. 30. After that, the agency will hit a federally mandated cap on salaries and overtime. The Washington Post reported that the Secret Service now protects 42 people around the clock, 11 more than it did under President Barack Obama. And the organization has had years of budget shortfalls.


Counterfeiting and Cyber Crimes

counterfeit money
In 2016, the Secret Service seized $30 million in counterfeit U.S. dollars and 50,000 counterfeit euros in Peru. Secret Service

The Secret Service was created in 1865 to combat counterfeiting and fraud. At the time, this consisted of tracking down people making fake U.S. bills and arresting them.

Today, the Secret Service is mainly concerned with safeguarding America's payment and financial systems from financial and computer-based crimes.


Agents work to thwart phishing emails, account takeovers, malicious software, hacking attacks and other major data breaches. Trained analysts gather data and look for patterns in credit card theft, identity theft, money laundering and other crimes. They do this through established national and international networks of electronic and financial crimes task forces, comprising experts in academia, the private sector and all levels of law enforcement.

The agency also has an advanced forensics lab that is home to the International Ink Library — the world's largest — which contains more than 9,500 types of inks dating to the 1920s. The library is maintained jointly by the Secret Service and Internal Revenue Service. The agencies continually purchase pens and inks to keep their holdings current, as well as ask pen and ink manufacturers to voluntarily submit their new ink formulas annually. The samples are used to help law enforcement identify or date various documents related to a crime they are investigating [source: Bowen and Schneider].

The forensics lab also contains the Forensic Information System for Handwriting database, or FISH. FISH allows document examiners to scan and digitize handwriting, such as that in any threatening notes. Once the handwriting is digitized, it can be compared to other samples for possible hits. The agency also has access to databases for matching pharmaceutical drugs, analyzing the tread patterns made by various types of shoes, and analyzing bullet and cartridge casings.

Besides handwriting and document analysis, forensics agents also work in areas such as polygraph exams, fingerprints, false identification documents and credit cards, and help train state and local law enforcement partners in certain investigative skills. In 2016, the agency executed 2,125 arrests for bank fraud, counterfeiting U.S. currency, identity fraud and the like.

In 1994, Congress added another job to the Secret Service's investigative mission: providing forensic and technical assistance to help find missing and exploited children [source: United States Secret Service].


Becoming a Secret Service Agent

Two female Secret Service agents confer at the 2016 National Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C. Secret Service

So you want to become a Secret Service agent? Before you can even apply for the job, you must be a U.S. citizen, between the ages of 21 and 37 and have a urinalysis screening to check for illegal drug use. You shouldn't have any visible tattoos or piercings, and will be subject to age, vision and physical condition requirements. You may have to pass a polygraph test and/or medical exam, too, depending upon the position for which you're applying. In addition, all prospective agents must pass a Top Secret security clearance process, which can take up to nine months. The Secret Service generally looks for those with a bachelor's degree or equivalent education and experience [sources: United States Secret Service].

If you make it past the written exam and interview, you'll be sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, for a 10-week training program, which focuses on investigation techniques and criminal law. After that you'll move on to an 18-week course in special agent basic training, held in Washington, D.C. This program teaches organizational policies and procedures, marksmanship and emergency medicine, among other subjects.


Once officially on the job, agents typically serve several years in a U.S. field office, then a few more in a protective assignment. After that, you may have a choice of working in the field, at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., or in training. In addition, if you're fluent in a foreign language, you may be able to work overseas.

During your early years in protection, you will not be protecting the current president. Those jobs go to longstanding agents. Instead, you'll likely be assigned to a former president's detail. You may also work at a "standing post," which means manning the security perimeters at a presidential event. For example, if the president is speaking at a hotel, you might be assigned to stand in a stairwell for several hours after it has been checked and cleared [source: Nguyen].

You may also be called upon to travel at a moment's notice. Let's say you're working in a field office and the president is traveling somewhere in your state to speak. You may be tapped to serve in a standing post at that event. You'll get extra pay for the extra work, but you may not be able to turn it down.

If you're offered the job, you'll be hired as a federal government employee at the GL-07 or GL-09 level, depending upon your education and experience. The pay range depends on where you end up working and your actual job.


Secret Service Successes and Failures

Clearly, the Secret Service has done a lot of good over the years. Probably its main success as far as presidential protection goes came in 1981, when agent Jerry Parr helped save then-President Ronald Reagan's life after a crazed assassin shot Reagan in the chest. It was Parr who initially got Reagan into his limo, and who directed the limo to change course and head to the hospital instead of the White House [source: Welker and Gittens].

The agents also successfully protected two major events being held simultaneously. One was Pope Francis' 2015 visit to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which involved screening 1.3 million people. At the same time, it protected the United Nations' 70th General Assembly, which drew 160 world leaders to New York City [source: Leonnig].


On the investigative side, the agency recovers millions in counterfeit money annually. In 2011, the Secret Service recovered $154.7 million in counterfeit monies, along with arresting, or assisting in the arrest of, nearly 3,000 individuals in the U.S. and abroad. And in 2016, the group scored its single most notable counterfeit coup in history, seizing $30 million in counterfeit U.S. dollars and 50,000 euros in Lima, Peru [sources: Erb, United States Secret Service].

But several high-profile incidents have sullied the agency's image. One November evening in 2011, a man began shooting at the White House with a semi-automatic rifle. Several shots hit the White House residential area before he fled. Secret Service agents on-site heard the shots, but had no clue what was going on and subsequently failed to properly investigate. It took four days for the agency to realize bullets had actually struck the White House — and they only figured that out after a housekeeper noticed broken glass and cement on the floor in one room [source: Leonnig].

In 2012, a huge scandal erupted when 175 agents traveled to Colombia ahead of President Barack Obama's pending visit; 12 of the agents took prostitutes back to their hotel. Shortly after this news broke, others alleged similar misconduct by agents had occurred in El Salvador in 2011 [sources: O'Keefe, CBS News].

In 2014, a mentally unstable person, armed with a knife, made it through five rings of security and was sprinting for the White House front door before being stopped by security. Also that year, another three agents were sent home from a presidential trip to the Netherlands after being found passed out drunk in a hotel [source: Graham].

A congressional investigation determined that the biggest cause of the Secret Service's problems was "an insular culture that has historically been resistant to change" [source: Washington Post]. The current Secret Service leader, Randolph D. "Tex" Alles, is the first in 100 years who did not come from the ranks of the agency. He is a retired Marine Corps general and was acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Whether his appointment changes the culture, improves morale and addresses other issues remains to be seen.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How the U.S. Secret Service Works

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we lived across the street from a Secret Service agent. It was fascinating to learn about the job. His prior assignment was protecting former President Jimmy Carter, so he and his family had been living in Georgia. Despite President Carter's advanced years, the former president was incredibly active and traveled a lot — something like 300-plus days per year. So our neighbor said he wasn't home very much, which wasn't fun.

Our neighbor and his family moved in 2003. Then, in 2015 or so, I was contacted by someone affiliated with the Secret Service. They wanted to interview me about this neighbor. I can't remember the exact reason why, but it had something to do with the fact that the government constantly keeps tabs on all of its agents, interviewing their families, friends and neighbors — past and present — to try and ensure the agents are acting appropriately. It was impressive to know the government goes through such extensive measures to ensure its Secret Service agents are honest.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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