What Does the Secret Service Do, and How Many Agents Protect the President?

With suspicious packages containing crude pipe bombs being sent to former president Barack Obama, former vice president Joe Biden, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Secret Service is on high alert. Keeping current and former presidents safe is a high-profile part of the job for Secret Service agents, but what else do they do?

Secret Service agent 2018

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the name, the United States Secret Service isn’t all that secret. Sure, we know about the handful of agents who don sharp suits, sunglasses, and discreet walkie-talkies while protecting the president, but there’s more to it than that.

What does the secret service do?

The most visible and obvious role the Secret Service provides is keeping current and former presidents safe.

When presidents are at home, agents keep an eye out for intruders and threats. When Donald Trump or former presidents travel, Secret Service agents scope out the destinations ahead of time. That includes identifying potential risks, packing bags with the president’s blood type, having an extra plane waiting nearby, and watching what the Commander in Chief eats (literally — they ensure food isn’t poisoned).

However, there’s more to the job than assigning code names for presidents and jogging alongside motorcades. The United States Secret Service’s primary function is to find and arrest counterfeiters. Agents also investigate financial, cyber, and financial crime, as well as international organized crime, according to the Secret Service website.

The USSS also protects visiting foreign leaders or anyone else the president directs it to guard.

Those are all official duties. Unofficially, agents make mental notes about some of the behind-the-scenes, confidential information about U.S. presidents under their watch.

How many Secret Service agents protect the president?

Uniformed Secret Service agents

Not all Secret Service members wear suits. | J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

As we mentioned, protecting the president is the most high-profile aspect of being a Secret Service agent. The handful of people selected presidential protection detail come from the USSS’s group of roughly 3,200 special agents and officers. Those who don’t guard the president are assigned to watch the White House, Treasury building, or foreign embassies in Washington, D.C., or they work in offices scattered across the country.

The history of the Secret Service

The Secret Service dates back to 1865 when it was in the Department of the Treasury. At first, its sole mission was to stop counterfeiting, but it’s added to its duties over the years. Here are a few key moments in its history.

Secret Service agents with George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barbara Bush 1990

The Secret Service protects presidents and their families as well as vice presidents. | Kevin Larkin/AFP/Getty Images

  • 1867: Responsibilities expanded to include investigating and stopping smugglers, mail robbers, land fraud, and other federal crimes.
  • 1894: The service protects its first president. Secret Service agents guard Grover Cleveland on a part-time basis.
  • 1901: President William McKinley’s assassination prompts Congress to make presidential protection a formal duty, which started in 1902. Only two agents guarded the president full time.
  • 1917: A president’s family receives the same protection as the Commander in Chief.
  • 1951: Congress authorizes the Secret Service to protect the president, his immediate family, the vice president, and the president-elect.
  • 1968: Presidential candidates, their running mates, and other nominees garner protection.
  • 1999: The Secret Service moves into its own headquarters. Before that, It rented office space in Washington, D.C.
  • 2003: The Secret Service moves from being part of the Treasury Department to the Department of Homeland Security.

How to become a Secret Service agent

Secret Service with Obama 2013

Heavily armed Secret Service agents stroll with President Obama in 2013. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Becoming an agent might be more difficult than becoming presidents. Potential field agents have to complete a 10-step process before they face a hiring panel that makes the final call on whether or not to hire them.

The two-phase process starts with a job opening and continues with a resume review, written exam, physical ability test, interview, and a conditional job offer. That’s phase one.

Phase two includes a security and credit check, polygraph test, medical and psychological exam, and a background check that takes up to nine months.

Agents need to be well-rounded, too. They receive extensive weapons and water survival skills, according to Thrillist. However, if you’ve used any illegal drugs since age 23, you have no shot of making the cut since you’ll be automatically disqualified. Same goes if you bought or sold drugs at any time in your life.

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