How the U.S. Secret Service Works

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

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 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.