Dark sunglasses, unsmiling mugs, a head on a swivel, the surreptitious earpiece, black suit, maybe the hint of a bulge under the jacket. Everybody knows a Secret Service agent when they see one, right?
Ah, but the United States Secret Service is way more than no-nonsense automatons packing heat and putting their lives on the line to protect presidents and other political bigwigs. When the United States Secret Service — the USSS, for all you government acronym-iacs — came into being at the end of the Civil War, protecting people wasn't even in its DNA.
Here are some tidbits you might not know about one of the most undercover of undercover outfits in the federal government:
1. It's Not Quite Like What You See on the Big Screen
Only about 3,600 of the 7,000-plus USSS employees are the stern-looking bodyguards (known as special agents) that protect the president and other select government officials.
Some 1,650 Secret Service employees are Uniformed Division officers whose duty is to securely lock down the venues, wherever they might be, where the president and other officials appear. The Uniformed Division is responsible for security at the White House, too, the Naval Observatory (the residence of the vice president), the Treasury Department, and other places like foreign embassies in Washington, D.C.
Yet another 2,300 or so provide technical law enforcement and other behind-the-scenes support; things like figuring out the safest routes for motorcades, the best and most secure way to outfit "The Beast" (a recent name for the president's main limousine), how to avoid chemical attacks ... and the more mundane governmental work of filing expense reports and answering questions from officers or agents who have trouble signing onto their laptops.
2. Safeguarding Money Is a Big Part of the Secret Service's Duty
When the USSS was formed in 1865, it was a bureau of the Treasury Department. Its mission was to battle widespread counterfeiting; at the end of the Civil War, nearly a third of all currency in circulation in the United States was fake. The Secret Service was there to help stabilize the financial system by ridding the country of counterfeiters.
Still, it's important stuff, and a key pillar in the Secret Service's dual mission, which is protection of the government's top dogs and investigation of crimes regarding the financial system at home and abroad. The people of the agency take both missions very seriously.
How important can guarding money really be?
According to a USSS spokesperson — this is straight from an email — "Over the past decade, the Secret Service has made approximately 50,000 arrests for counterfeiting, cyber and financial crimes and seized $1.8B in counterfeit currency. The Secret Service has also prevented potential loss of approximately $53B."
The B, as you may have figured, means "billions." So ... yeah. Important.
So does the Secret Service still report to Treasury? No. On March 1, 2003, the USSS was transferred to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, which now seems a better fit. But the Secret Service is still all over protecting the financial infrastructure of the nation.
3. Secret Service Agents Are Still the Stars
As Clint Eastwood, Gerard Butler, Channing Tatum and many other Hollywood types have shown, you can't get past the very American coolness that is part of being a Secret Service special agent. They are the very real people willing to take a bullet to save others' lives.
Certainly, it's not all that exciting all the time. "The best way to sum up being a Secret Service agent," former agent Johnathan Wackrow, who spent 14 years with the Service, more than four of them on protective detail of then-President Barack Obama, told Vanity Fair, "is prolonged periods of boredom only broken up by moments of sheer terror."
Secret Service agents saved Ronald Reagan in an assassination attempt in 1981. They helped Jackie back into the convertible when John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. They wrapped up presidential candidate Donald Trump and rushed him off the stage when someone shouted "gun" at a rally in 2016. They're there, on Inauguration Day, providing a human shield as the president almost invariably takes a stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue.
It's pretty slow, when it's not terrifying. But the pressure, at all times, is outrageous.
"The Secret Service has a zero fail mission," Lt. Christopher Fagan told a bunch of Secret Service rookies in a Business Insider video. "What that means in layman's terms, ladies and gentlemen, is this: You don't get a bad day in the Secret Service.
"If you have a bad day, and you don't do your job, you're going to change the world." And he doesn't mean for the better.
4. Agents Started Protecting the President in the 20th Century
It wasn't until the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 that the Secret Service was tasked with protecting the president.
(Quick aside, under "It's Not Like This Anymore": McKinley was shot twice in the abdomen by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The president died eight days later. Czolgosz's trial started nine days after McKinley's death and lasted three days. The murderer was hanged less than two months after the attack.)
5. Becoming a Special Agent Isn't Easy
It's been reported that only one out of 100 applicants makes it to special agent training, and a lot of them wash out once they get to the James J. Rowley Training Center in Laurel, Maryland.
All recruits go through a six-month training program after they're thoroughly vetted. They're given a polygraph. They go through firearms training, driver's training ( where they're taught things like evasive maneuvering), hand-to-hand combat training, your basic federal law enforcement training. Once they make it that far, they spend three to five years in a field office, at home or abroad. And only then, maybe, do they move onto the second phase of the career, in a protective division assignment. The best go on to the Presidential Protective Division (PPD), where most serve a minimum of six years.
6. They're Tough and Cool, But Not Enough for Tattoos
That's right... mostly. "If you have visible body markings, you will be required to medically remove such visible body markings at your own expense prior to entering on duty with the Secret Service," the USSS says on its site.
When asked about the tattoo taboo, a USSS spokesperson emailed, "The U.S. Secret Service, similar to other law enforcement agencies, has a uniform standard of dress to which employees are held."
And that's all there is to that.
7. They Can Have a Drug-pocked Past, Though
Prior marijuana use, or even abuse of prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs, is not an automatic bar to getting into the Secret Service. It depends on how old an applicant is and when s/he last used. It's a pretty woke position for a generally buttoned-down outfit.
"The USSS does not condone any prior unlawful drug activity by Applicants," the USSS says on its site, "but it recognizes that some otherwise qualified Applicants may have used or otherwise interacted with illegal drugs at some point in their past."
That said, any applicant who currently uses illegal drugs will be found to be "unsuitable."
And, yes, there is a drug test.
8. It's Still a Dude's World
In 1971, Laurie Anderson, Sue Baker, Kathryn Clark, Holly Hufschmidt and Phyllis Shantz became the first five women special agents. But it wasn't until 2013 that the first female — Julia A. Pierson — was appointed to lead the agency. She became the 23rd director of the USSS March 27, 2013.
But of the more than 7,000 employees today, fewer than a quarter are women. The Service insists, though, that it's trying.
"Approximately 24 percent of Secret Services employees are women," the USSS spokesperson says. "The Secret Service is continually and actively recruiting to ensure a diverse mix of employees. Part of these efforts include visiting colleges, hosting information sessions, and participating in career fairs."
Now That's Interesting
After Secret Service special agents spend three years in a field office and six years or more in a protective division, they move onto the final phase of their careers, which can include further protective assignments, further field office work, or a bump into specialty assignments (including things like training new agents, getting into work on electronic crimes, or being assigned to a Congressional staff gig). Entry level special agents start at $49,016 a year. In Phase 3 of their careers, special agents can make nearly $145,000 a year.
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