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United States Secret Service

Updated on January 6, 2017

The US Secret Service is a federal law-enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security (Until 1st March 2003 it was a part of the Department of the Treasury). It was established on July 5, 1865. The responsibilities and jurisdiction of the director of the Secret Service and his staff and agents include: (1) protection of the president of the United States and certain other officials; (2) detection and arrest of counterfeiters; (3) the carrying out of other specified duties, such as supervision of the Executive Protective Service, which protects the White House, and of the Treasury Security Force, which protects the Treasury buildings and vaults; and (4) the offering and payment of rewards for services and information contributing to the apprehension of criminals.

The duties of the Secret Service are defined in an act of Congress, Title 18, U. S. Code, section 3056, which amended earlier regulations.


In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, at his last cabinet meeting, approved creation of the Secret Service in the Treasury Department to fight counterfeiters. Not only Lincoln but two more presidents, James A. Garfield and William McKinley, would be victims of assassins before the Secret Service, the only general law-enforcement agency of the federal government at that time, was in 1901 assigned the function of protecting presidents.

Tragedies and near-tragedies, from one administration to another, gradually expanded the agency's duties to include responsibility for the protection of the president-elect, then Woodrow Wilson (1913); the president's immediate family (1917); the vice president, then Alben W. Barkley (1951); the vice president-elect (1962); former presidents and their wives (1965); the widow of a former president until her death or remarriage, and the children of a former president until they reach the age of 16, an aftermath of the assassination in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy (1968); major presidential and vice presidential candidates (1968); visiting heads of foreign governments and, at the president's direction, other foreign dignitaries and U. S. officials abroad (1971).

Early History

For nearly half a century after it was established in 1865, the Secret Service investigated not only counterfeiting, its primary responsibility, but also various violations of federal law that were later assigned to other government agencies. Agents uncovered opium smuggling, extortion rackets by organized crime, and even an attempt to steal Lincoln's body from its tomb. In 1871 the Secret Service went after the Ku Klux Klan and within three years had jailed more than a thousand of that organization's hooded terrorists.

In the Spanish-American War, agents tracked down an elusive Spanish spy ring that was operating in Canada. They located the headquarters of the spy ring in Montreal, and exposed Lt. Ramon Carranza, naval attache of the Spanish legation, as the mastermind of the operation. Carranza was banished from Canadian soil by the government of Canada, and with the arrest of other spies in the United States, the Secret Service effectively put an end to the Spanish espionage apparatus.

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 sent Secret Service agents west to investigate suspected frauds involving government-owned land. Thousands of acres were being offered free to home­steaders but wound up in cattle empires. When the Secret Service exposed huge land frauds, including some questionable practices by congressmen, Congress told the agency to mind its own business, counterfeiting. Some Secret Service agents were transferred to the Department of Justice, to launch the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to lift its restrictions on the Secret Service long enough for agents to go after a German sabotage network. When an agent snatched a plotter's briefcase, the whole scheme was uncovered. At President Calvin Coolidge's order, agents secretly investigated the Tea­pot Dome oil scandals, a plot hatched to make millions out of the government's oil reserves. Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was convicted as a result of the Secret Service investigations, and others were fined or fled the country. Then, once again, the Secret Service returned to concentrate mainly on catching counterfeiters and protecting presidents.


To protect the nation's money, the Secret Service is charged by law with detecting and suppressing the counterfeiting and forgery of obligations and securities of the United States, including currency, checks, and bonds.

In carrying out this major responsibility, the Secret Service is sending more agents under­cover to catch counterfeiters. Despite the sharp rise in the production of phony money, particularly through the use of high-speed presses, agents are still able to seize most of the counterfeit bills before they can be passed. Because the leaders of organized crime frequently deal in counterfeit money and forged government checks and bonds, Secret Service agents are as­signed to the attorney general's strike forces against organized crime.

Protection of the President

The Secret Service was charged with protecting presidents in 1901, after William McKinley was assassinated. Congress, however, did not vote money for presi­dential protection until 1906, or make the assignment permanent until 1951. Because the Secret Service protects around the clock, agents followed President Wilson when he was courting Mrs. Edith Boiling Gait, kept vigil with President Coolidge at his dying son's bedside, and traveled through submarine-infested waters with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. Because the Secret Service guards against kid­napping, as well as assassination and bombing, agents go to school with the president's children, accompany them on their dates, and are never far away on their honeymoons. The agency had successfully protected presidents for six decades until President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. The tragedy marked a turning point for the Secret Service.

An investigation commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that the Secret Service lacked men and facilities to keep up with the increased complexities of protecting presidents; that it provided no guidelines to other agencies to spot potential risks; and that it had no liaison for reporting these risks. Carrying out the Warren Commission's recommendations to modernize the Secret Service, the force was increased in less than a decade from 361 to 1,200 agents, while its budget rose from $7.6 million to $62.6 million. By the early 1970's, the agency had some 60 district offices. Guidelines detailing which "risks" to report, from subversives to malcontents, were issued to other agencies, and twenty times more information poured in, all to be fed to the Secret Service's massive new computers. In the new close liaison, intelligence-gathering agents pay daily calls on more than a dozen government offices.

Although the agency keeps many of its protective methods secret, it publicly discloses some procedures. At inaugurations the president is shielded by bullet-proof glass; heavy armor plate in the floor of his parade reviewing stand protects him against planted bombs; and helicopters hover above to make sure the sky is safe. In a motorcade the president rides in a limousine with armor-plated sides and bullet-resistant glass. Agents ride on the car's rear platform and more agents follow, their eyes on the crowd and their compact machine guns within reach. Air-to-ground communications with a helicopter alert the agents to possible roof-top snipers or to disturbances ahead.

Presidential protection is as good as highly trained men and modern equipment can make it. Stressing preventive intelligence, the agency screens some 20,000 potential threats a year, and keeps known revolutionaries and persons with mental or emotional disturbance under surveillance when the president comes to town. Security planning for trips is more detailed than ever, and the Secret Service trains local police in protective techniques. Protection is to be as thorough but as inconspicuous as possible, befitting the leader of a democracy.

Yet, as the Warren Commission recognized, the president's desire for frequent, easy access to the people can complicate the protective task. No agents rode on the corners of the Kennedy car in the Dallas motorcade because the President had asked them not to do so. President Lyndon B. Johnson often strode into milling throngs where agents could not protect him. Even former President Harry Truman chided him for the risks he took. Later, President Johnson admitted to Secret Service agents that he realized he had been inconsiderate.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, on June 5, 1968, the night he won the California Democratic presidential primary, precipitated another major role for the Secret Service. Within hours, President Johnson ordered the Secret Service to protect all presidential candidates. Congress soon passed legislation calling for similar protection. In all, 11 candidates were guarded before the 1968 election. Between elections, the 526 agents who are recruited in order to protect major candidates in election years join in the hunt for counterfeiters. During the 1972 presidential primary elections some editorial writers protested that Secret Service protection put a barrier between candidates and the people, and a congressman protested because he was asked for identification, but the candidates themselves did not protest. They knew how real the danger could be, as evidenced by the fact that on May 15, 1972, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama was shot and critically wounded by a would-be as­sassin on the eve of his primary victory in Maryland.

To combat "an escalating risk of assassination," the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence proposed in 1969 that Congress require television stations to grant free time to candidates near election day, in order to reduce exposure to possible snipers' bullets. Because Congress did not act, the Secret Service remains the principal shield when presidents and would-be presidents address the people.

Other Responsibilities

The climate of dissension, of bombings, and of spiraling crime all prompted vast expansion in the 1970's of Secret Service responsibilities and of the uniformed force it supervises.

After attacks on Washington's diplomatic colony had increased more than seven times in the 1960's, President Richard M. Nixon ordered the White House police, supervised by the Secret Service, to guard foreign missions in the nation's capital, as well as the White House and buildings where presidential offices are situated. Legislation in 1970 changed the name of this special force to the Executive Protective Service, officially expanded its duties to cover the 117 embassies, and increased its size from 250 to 850 men and women. Where this force patrols, crime has dropped. One patrol uncovered a bomb outside a Portuguese Embassy office. When they were still known as White House police, these presidential guardians battled Puerto Rican nationalists trying to invade Blair House, the temporary White House, in order to kill President Harry S Truman. In the shootout, one policeman was slain, and two were wounded.

The other uniformed force under Secret Service supervision is the Treasury Security Force, which safeguards the billions of dollars and securities stored in the main Treasury building's underground vaults.


The Secret Service prides itself on being an elite force. Prospective agents must be college graduates, preferably with at least a "B" average and in the top quarter of their class, and they must have completed courses in police science and criminology. Candidates must also be over 21, pass a written Civil Service examination, and undergo a thorough character investigation.

Trainees begin on-the-job training in a designated field office, where they learn to handle weapons, observe court procedures, and meet fellow agents, police, and prosecutors. After a short time, the trainees go to Washington for the seven-week course that is given to all Treasury enforcement agents. Another three-month period of field training is followed by specialized courses at the Secret Service training school. There they learn how to spot forgeries and counterfeits, and how to ward off threats to the president's safety. They are taught fire fighting, defensive tactics, and shooting at night, and are advised on how to proceed when talking to the mentally ill. They practice driving the president's car under varying conditions, and also the technique of clinging to the steps of the "follow-up" car. Later, they may be sent to universities to broaden their background and increase their value to the service. The first women to become special agents were sworn in on December 15, 1971. They are given the same training and the same assignments as the men.


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