A recent scandal involving Colombian prostitutes and the Secret Service has drawn new attention to an agency that has long been shrouded in mystery and dominated by romantic images of sculpted men wearing sunglasses and earpieces.
While investigations into the late-night carousing continue, the scandal offers an opportunity to look inside the very secret organization.
Among other little-known facts about the Secret Service, one of the agency's main purposes is to protect our nation's currency against counterfeiting, forgery and related threats. The men and women who make it into the Service go through a long and rigorous training process before they ever even get close to the President or the Vice President. Many never do.
“The Secret Service has the romantic thing called the Presidential Protective Division, and every time you see the President, you see these guys with wires in their ears,” said Jeffrey Robinson, co-author of "Standing Next to History: An Agent's Life Inside the Secret Service." “But that’s a long way away from the day you sign up.”
Abraham Lincoln started the Secret Service in 1865 as a branch of the United States Treasury. The agency’s original mission was to tackle counterfeiting crimes, which were rampant just after the Civil War. After the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, its role expanded to include presidential vigil.
The Service is required by law to protect the President and the Vice President at all times.
The President can also authorize protection for others, including presidential candidates. Mitt Romney, for example, now has Secret Service protection.
When a President’s term is over, he and his VP can opt to keep their protective detail for 10 years, or they can opt out at any time. Once they’ve dropped their agents, though, they can’t opt back in. Their kids automatically lose protection at age 21.
There is no single way to land a job with the Secret Service. Once an agent is accepted into the service, he or she goes through an intensive training program that lasts for several months. Then, it’s off to an assignment in one of the Service’s many field offices, where agents first and foremost learn to be investigators. The Service is particularly fond of football players, Robinson said, because they understand how to play their positions in situations where teamwork is essential.
Women make up about a quarter of the 6,500-plus agents in Service, Robinson said, and like their male colleagues, they usually have athletic backgrounds. No matter their gender or size, all agents need to meet the same physical standards to qualify for certain positions. If the President is an avid runner or athlete, for example, they may need to be able to run a six-minute mile while carrying heavy guns and other equipment.
Starting annual salary for a special agent, according to the agency’s website, is between about $44,000 and $75,000.
For the first five years, the job consists mostly of grunt work, Robinson said. But every time the president comes to town, agents work long days and nights in concentric circles, creating a layered fishbowl of protection around the president’s every move.
The newest recruits do things like stand post by barricades in foul weather all night long. More experienced agents investigate every possible threat that could possibly arise during a presidential visit. They guard hotels, where they monitor every person allowed in or out. They scope out airports before Air Force One arrives. And they clear out streets before the motorcade comes through.
At every destination, agents also make sure that there is always a trauma hospital within 10 minutes of the president that is ready for an emergency situation, Robinson said. If there are no hospitals nearby, the Service sets up a temporary trauma center in a makeshift location, like on an offshore aircraft carrier that is equipped with a helicopter.
After putting in their time for six years or more, agents can apply for the Presidential Protective Division, where they again start at the bottom. At first, they do things like answer phones and scan the mail that comes into the White House.
Eventually, PPD agents get onto teams that travel at least four times to each location that the president plans to go, starting three months before the trip. Secret Service agents spend 10 days in a city before the President arrives. Some stand within bullet-blocking range of the President, but most are further out.
The work requires a stressful amount of travel, sleep deprivation, and commitment to being on call 24 hours a day. Agents often end up working 18-hour days, day after day. Added pressure comes from an intense sense of responsibility for protecting our nation’s leaders.
Bonded by such intense work, agents form close friendships with each other. But they miss more than their share of anniversaries and kid birthday parties. Divorce rates are high.
“They really are not like what we saw in Columbia,” said Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President's Secret Service: Behind The Scenes With Agents In The Line of Fire And The Presidents They Protect.” “They are very straight-laced. Sure, they drink and go to parties, but most of the time they are so overworked, they are just exhausted and they don’t have a life at all.”
What underlies the Colombia scandal, is not lack of pride among agents, said Kessler. Instead, the problem is an agency that is facing increasing demands without the resources to meet them. In turn, he argued, the Service has been cutting corners, leading to low morale, contempt for rules and a culture of recklessness.
Experts are debating whether the bad behavior of agents in Colombia actually put the President in any danger. Robinson thinks not. Most of the men implicated in the scandal were uniformed officers whose responsibilities included handling dogs and manning metal detectors. They were not part of the President’s inner circle.
“When you take a bunch of 24-year old guys, mix testosterone and alcohol and throw in a bit of hubris, you have a really bad situation, and those guys were idiots,” Robinson said. “That’s not representative of the PPD and the pride those guys have in the job they do. They’re a great bunch of men and women.”