When you see the U.S. president, you are also likely to see the U.S. Secret Service in its most high-profile role: standing at the ready to protect the commander in chief. But that visible presence is only one aspect of the agency that also protects the vice president and his family, former presidents and visiting heads of state.
One of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies, the Secret Service is also tasked with investigating crimes against the financial infrastructure of the United States, including cybercrime. It has about 6,500 employees, including special agents, officers and support staff, with field offices in every state and abroad.
Some interesting facts:
The Secret Service didn’t originally protect the president
In 1865 the Secret Service was founded as part of the Treasury Department to combat extensive counterfeiting of money after the Civil War. Up to a third of the money in circulation at that time was counterfeit, taking a devastating toll on the country’s economy.
“In a bit of irony, President Lincoln signed the bill creating the Secret Service just before he was assassinated,” said Mickey Nelson, once an assistant director of the Secret Service, now with Command Consulting Group. “It had nothing to do with presidential protection at the time.”
Fighting counterfeiting is still a big part of the Secret Service’s work
The agency continues to investigate counterfeiting of U.S. currency both at home and overseas. In November 2016 the agency seized $30 million in counterfeit money — the largest seizure in its history — in Peru.
Full-time presidential protection began in 1901
The Secret Service provided unofficial, part-time protection for President Grover Cleveland in the last years of the 19th century. After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 — the third presidential assassination in 36 years — Congress requested full-time Secret Service protection for presidents. The first protective detail in the White House had only two men.
Most of the protection work comes before
One to two weeks before any presidential event outside of Washington, Secret Service advance teams are on-site developing primary, secondary and emergency motorcade routes, surveying hospitals, and developing security plans for each place the president will visit.
“The advance planning is the core principle of the Secret Service and why they’re so effective,” Nelson said. People always see the agents surrounding the president, but “what they don’t see are the many days and hours of arduous work prior to the president arriving,” he said. For example, full-time planning for the 2017 presidential inauguration began 18 months before.
What’s the big secret?
The origin of the agency’s name has nothing to do with modern-day intrigue and everything to do with its original purpose of fighting counterfeiters. “It was a bunch of undercover operatives at the time,” Nelson explained. “They were covert, hence the name ‘Secret Service.'”