How the U.S. Secret Service Works

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

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.

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.

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More Great Links


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