In the President's Secret Service
The U.S. Secret Service is, in some ways, a paradox. Despite its suggestive name, which seems to intimate covert operations, it is not a particularly secretive agency. In fact, it is more in the public eye than the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and most other federal law-enforcement agencies. Its agents, who are best known for their role in protecting the U.S. president, are most visible during presidential elections, when whey can be seen everywhere that political candidates appear. Clad in neat, businesslike suits and wearing earphones, they hover closely around the candidates, while carefully watching for possible trouble.
Because of the high visibility of the president of the United States, the president’s family, presidential candidates, and other American government leaders and foreign dignitaries who receive their protection, Secret Service agents are probably seen in public more frequently than the agents of all other major federal law-enforcement agencies combined. As a consequence, the agency itself is publicly perceived as being involved almost exclusively in presidential protection. Such, indeed, is the perception conveyed in the title of Ronald Kessler’s book, The President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. The reality, however, is somewhat different. The Secret Service does not exist merely to protect political leaders. In fact, it was created for altogether different reasons more than three decades before it formally added presidential protection to its tasks.
The Secret Service was established in 1865 to combat currency counterfeiting, which was a critical problem during the Civil War. In what may be one of the great ironies in American history, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill creating the Secret Service on April 14, 1865the very day on which he was fatally shot. After a brief prologue describing the Secret Service’s role in President Barack Obama’s January, 2009, inauguration day, Kessler opens his book with an account of Lincoln’s assassination and then goes on to summarize the history of the Secret Service.
Up to 1865, protecting presidents received little special attention, despite the fact that Lincoln himself received many death threats. After long refusing special protection, Lincoln finally assented to having a few Washington city police officers serve as his bodyguards. In sharp contrast to modern Secret Service agents, his bodyguards were given no special training and their supervision was lax. Lincoln was shot while sitting in a private box watching a stage play, after the lone policeman assigned to guard the door to his box wandered off to a saloon. Such a situation is unimaginable today, when highly trained Secret Service agents will not let anyone near a president without a careful screening and a magnetometer scanning.
After Lincoln was killed, Americans demanded better protection of their presidents, but little was done until 1901, when presidential protection became a formal Secret Service responsibility. By then, two more presidents, James A. Garfield and William McKinley, had been assassinated, and the need for protecting presidents could no longer be ignored. Meanwhile, the responsibilities of the Secret Service had grown greatly since its creation four decades earlier. Thanks to the agency’s success in combating counterfeiting, Congress had authorized it to investigate other forms of fraud against the government.
Since 1901, the Secret Service’s responsibilities for both protective services and fraud investigation have grown immensely. As the specific tasks of the agency’s individual offices and agents may vary radically from day to day, it is difficult to pinpoint how the agency’s resources are divided. Nevertheless, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that, by the early twenty-first century, the agency was still directing more of its resources into fraud investigations than into protective duties.
Kessler acknowledges the primacy of the Secret Service’s fraud investigation work, but the primary focus throughout his book is on the agency’s protective work, particularly that relating to the presidency. He does, however, frequently mention the extent to which the agency’s growing fraud-investigation workload has strained its ability to do its protective work, which has also expanded to include protection of presidential families, vice presidents and their families, presidential candidates, retired presidents and vice presidents and their families, visiting foreign dignitaries, and whomever else a president wishes to have protected. At any given moment, each of these persons is protected by at least three or four agents (many more for presidents), and this figure grows exponentially when round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week schedules are factored in and the special complications of travel and public events are considered.
The 2008 presidential campaigns brought unprecedented attention to the Secret Service. The campaigns themselves drew an extraordinary amount of public attention, which was accentuated by the fact that Barack Obama, the eventual winner of the election, is an African American. In the back of the minds of almost everyoneincluding government leaderswas the fear that Obama might become the target of racist hate groups who could not abide having a black president. Indeed, Obama’s unique peril was great enough for him to be accorded Secret Service protection well before he won his party’s nomination, and threats against the president quadrupled after he took office. Increased public interest in how presidents are protected makes publication of Kessler’s book very timely. However, although public awareness of the...
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