The U.S. Secret Service is in the news of late because of an accidentally discharged weapon on an Ahmadinejad detail, as revealed in an upcoming book by Marc Ambinder and me. But considering the agency’s expanding breadth of responsibility and the gravity of its mission, such incidents are bound to happen on occasion, and its record is largely above reproach. Here are a few things you might not know about the United States Secret Service.
1. They were created by Abraham Lincoln.
President Abraham Lincoln established the United States Secret Service on April 14, 1865. It is a sad historical irony that later that day, Lincoln was assassinated. When it was commissioned the following July, the “Secret Service Division of the Department of the Treasury” was responsible for tracking down counterfeiters. It wouldn’t assume control of presidential protection for another 36 years.
2. They gave birth to the FBI.
At the start of the twentieth century, the notion of a federal law enforcement agency was considered controversial, but the rise of interstate commerce, transportation, and communication was forcing the issue. When the Department of Justice needed to conduct investigations at a national level, it borrowed agents from the Secret Service, who were both dedicated and highly trained. The problem was that Secret Service agents didn’t report to the attorney general (who obviously wanted more control of such investigations), but to their own director. In 1908, spurred by Congressional meddling, the attorney general hired nine Secret Service agents and commissioned them as “special agents of the Justice Department.” These special agents would be the heart of the Bureau of Investigation, later called the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
3. They no longer belong to the Department of the Treasury.
Though it is most associated with the Department of the Treasury because of its history and responsibility to protect the American financial system, in 2003 the United States Secret Service was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.
4. They’ve never had a traitor.
Over the years, the FBI, CIA, and NSA have been thoroughly penetrated by untold numbers of foreign spies. (The Soviet Union was especially good at penetrating agencies and turning our agents.) Despite this, the men and women responsible for protecting the president have never had a spy in their midst. No member of the protective detail has ever betrayed his or her country. As Marc characterized it, over at The Week: “More than 110 years of treason-free protection.”
5. Everyone under Secret Service protection gets the presidential treatment.
Everyone knows that Secret Service agents will “take a bullet for the president.” What they might not know is that Secret Service agents are just as prepared to take a bullet for everyone under their care. Among those who fall under the Secret Service’s personal protection include nominated and former presidents and their families; nominated and former vice presidents and their families; foreign heads of state and their spouses; and foreign dignitaries and their spouses.
6. The Uniformed Division began as the White House Police.
In 1922, the White House Police Force was established by President Warren Harding to provide security at the White House and the Executive Office Building. In 1930, responsibility for the force was given to the Secret Service. In 1970, the White House Police Force was renamed the Executive Protective Service, and its duties expanded to include foreign diplomatic missions in the Washington, D.C. area. (Its area of responsibility would soon grow to consist of the entirety of the United States.) Today it is known as the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service.
7. That guy in a baseball cap might not actually be listening to an iPod.
The image of a Secret Service agent wearing a suit and sunglasses, a finger pressed to a coiled-wire earpiece, isn’t strictly accurate. Agents, in fact, generally dress for the occasion. Sometimes it’s a suit or a tuxedo, but it’s just as often jeans and a jacket. Even the type of earpiece varies from the coiled-wire variety seen in movies to one that resembles iPod ear buds. As for the sunglasses, they aren’t worn to keep would-be assassins from knowing where agents are looking. Rather, the Secret Service insists that they’re worn for the same reason everyone else wears them: to keep the sun out of their eyes.
8. Only one member of the Secret Service has died while protecting a president.
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists mounted an assassination attempt on President Harry Truman. At the time, the president was living at Blair House while the White House was under renovation. The assassins stormed Blair House, shooting Private Leslie Coffelt of the White House Police Force three times in the chest and abdomen. Despite his wounds, the Secret Service policeman managed to return fire, shooting one of the assassins in the head. Coffelt is the only member of the Secret Service to die while protecting the president.
9. They’re at the Super Bowl even if the president isn’t.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton established National Special Security Event procedures to help federal agencies prevent terrorist attacks on such events as the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush reorganized the procedures, placing the Secret Service in charge of NSSE security and the FBI in charge of intelligence and counterterrorism. FEMA is responsible for any post-disaster recovery management.
10. If you see the CAT, duck.
The U.S. Secret Service “Counter Assault Team” (CAT) is part of the Presidential Protective Detail. It is a low-profile unit unleashed in the event of an attack on a protectee. The CAT’s job is to neutralize and eliminate the threat. As special tactics instructor and author Leroy Thompson wrote, “If you see the CAT come out of the black suburban, look for cover.”
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