The Dual Mission of the Secret Service, Protection and Investigations
When most people think of the Secret Service, they immediately think of the people behind or next to the President wearing sunglasses talking into their sleeve. They don’t realize what else the Service does or how we started. In an ironic twist, the creation of the Secret Service was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s last official acts before he was assassinated.
The Secret Service was created in 1865 to suppress counterfeiting. At that time, due in part to the efforts of the Confederacy to undermine the economy of the North, counterfeiting was a major problem. One out of every three notes in circulation in the United States was counterfeit. As you can imagine, if people do not have faith in their currency, it makes any transactions, including banking and commerce, difficult.
Since there was no general federal law enforcement agency to tackle the problem, one was created, the Secret Service. (Just as a note, because I know someone will ask, “what about the FBI?” It was created in 1908). The focus on counterfeiting also explains why the Service was created under the Treasury Department.
In 1901 President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo NY. He was the third US president in less than 40 years to be assassinated (Garfield in 1881). We realized we needed more than the good will of the US populace to secure the chief elected official, so the Secret Service was given this duty.
As time went on, the country grew, and the Department of Justice was created and a decision was made to establish a general federal law enforcement agency under DOJ. The FBI was formed. The FBI expanded and took on more responsibilities as additional federal laws were passed. The Secret Service remained rather small. We focused on financial crimes. Counterfeiting, forgery of government obligations, bank fraud, and of course threats against anyone we protected.
While our investigative jurisdiction remained fairly limited, our protective responsibilities expanded to include the vice president, then the spouse and family of the president and VP. Then foreign heads of state were protected while they were on US soil. In 1968 after the murder of candidate Bobby Kennedy, the Service was tasked with protecting major presidential candidates. I should note that it isn’t up to the Service which candidates it protects. This is set by Congress based upon a number of factors. The Service doesn’t have any say in the matter, as some people think.
Interestingly enough, the next big year for the Secret Service was 1984, and while I want to think it was because that was the year, they hired me, it was actually because we got three statutes that no one else wanted. In 1984, there was better than a 50/50 shot that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was going to be dissolved. While no agency really wanted the Alcohol or Tobacco statutes, the Service and Bureau were salivating over the firearms statutes.
Well, as usual, the Bureau had a lot more clout than the Service on Capitol Hill. They pushed for the firearms violations and the Service was placated with three new violations, 18 USC 1028 Fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents (false ID), 1029 Fraud and related activity in connection with access devices (credit card fraud), and 1030 Fraud and related activity in connection with computers.
False ID, Access device fraud (credit card fraud) and or password, and fraud and related activity in connection with computers. AKA computer crime.
Computer crime was a cast off. No one wanted or knew what to do with it. I’d like to say the Service had vision and knew that computers would become ubiquitous, but I don’t think that was the case. We just got the cast-off violations. As you can imagine, in the next 30 years, that statute became one of the most important in the country.
The last piece of the puzzle for the Secret Service happened after 9/11. When the Department of Homeland Security was created, the Service was placed under the new agency and given the responsibility for securing NSSEs (National Special Security Events). This includes but is not limited to UN General Assemblies, RNC/DNC, Olympics, G8 summits, state funerals, and other events.
As an agent with the Secret Service I spent nine years in the field conducting investigations. I worked in both a large and small office. I had the opportunity to investigate the full range of violations for which the Service has statutory authority.
I’ve highlighted the investigative tools, techniques and expertise of the Service in my novel, A Sense of Justice.