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The United States Secret Service is a United States federal government law enforcement agency that is part of the United States Department of Homeland Security (prior to the founding of that department in 2002, it was under the United States Department of the Treasury).
The Secret Service has primary jurisdiction over the prevention of counterfeiting of currency and US Government bonds and notes, and protection of the President, Vice President, their immediate families, past presidents and their spouses, certain candidates for the offices of President and Vice President, and visiting foreign heads of state and government (all called "protectees"). It also investigates a wide variety of financial fraud crimes and identity theft and provides forensics assistance for some local crimes.
The act creating the service was signed by president Abraham Lincoln as one of his last official acts. The Secret Service was commissioned on July 5, 1865 in Washington, D.C., to suppress counterfeit currency, which is why it was established under the United States Department of the Treasury. After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Congress informally requested Secret Service presidential protection. A year later, the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for protection of the President.
The Secret Service Presidential Protection Detail safeguards the President of the United States and his immediate family. They are heavily armed and work with local police and the military to safeguard the President when he travels.
Although today this is the Secret Service's most visible role, personal protection is an anomaly in the responsibilities of an agency focused on fraud and counterfeiting. The reason for this combination of duties is that when the need for presidential protection became apparent in the late 19th century, there were only a few federal services with the necessary abilities. The FBI, CIA, BATFE, and DEA did not yet exist. The United States Marshals Service was the only other logical choice, and in fact the U.S. Marshals did provide protection for the president at some points. In the end though, the job went to the Secret Service.
The Secret Service has over 5,000 employees: 2100 Special Agents, 1200 Uniformed Division employees, and 1700 technical and administrative employees. The Special Agents are the ones who bodyguard officials and investigate financial fraud.
Per Public Law 91-217, passed in 1970, Secret Service Uniformed Division security police officers protect:
- the White House Complex, the Main Treasury Building and Annex, and other Presidential offices
- the President and members of the immediate family
- the temporary official residence of the Vice President in the District of Columbia
- the Vice President and members of the immediate family
- foreign diplomatic missions in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and throughout the United States and its territories and possessions, as prescribed by statute.
- the Democratic and Republican candidates for the Presidency during election years.
Like other federal law enforcement organizations, the Service has its critics. Such critics may point, for example, to an incident where Steve Jackson Games was raided by Secret Service agents in a move that was later ruled to be illegal and unjustified. The Secret Service has also been involved in investigations, arrests, and detentions that were allegedly motivated by political issues rather than security concerns. For instance:
- The Service as a rule will remove protestors who disrupt events where the President is speaking. At times the Service has removed persons who make a show of disrespect even when the behavior is not overtly disruptive. In one instance, the Service was involved in removing graduates from the Ohio State University graduation who had organized to turn their backs on the speaker, George W. Bush. In most cases, actual arrests are made by local law enforcement.
- The Service has statutory authority to detain individuals deemed to be a danger to protectees, without a court determination that the individuals in question are mentally ill. This has led to criticism.
The United States Secret Service Uniformed Division is similar to the Capitol Police and is in charge of protecting the physical White House Grounds
In 1968, as a result of Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, Congress authorized protection of major Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates and nominees (Public Law 90-331). Congress also authorized protection of widows of Presidents until death, or remarriage, and their children until age 16.
Congress passed legislation in 1994 stating that Presidents elected to office after January 1, 1997, will receive Secret Service protection for 10 years after leaving office. Individuals elected to office prior to January 1, 1997, will continue to receive lifetime protection (Public Law 103-329).
The Service also investigates forgery of government checks, forgery of currency equivalents (such as travelers' checks), and certain instances of wire fraud (such as the so called Nigerian "419" advance fee scheme) and credit card fraud.
The Service and the FBI each see themselves as the most prestigious and capable federal law enforcement agency. (However, a June 17, 2002 U.S. News and World Report cover article detailed numerous allegations of incompetent, illegal or contrary to Secret Service regulations behavior by agents.) There is some animosity between the two organizations, and very few agents have served in both.
Secret Service in popular culture