Protecting the President: How the Secret Service Got the Job

Secret Service protect the PresidentSecret Service protect the President.

Recent controversies have raised questions about the Secret Service’s professionalism and ability to protect the President. This, in turn, raises another question: what is a “secret” service doing in the high-profile job of protecting the President? Why isn’t the FBI doing this job?

The answer to these questions lies in the Civil War, when the Federal Government needed spies to collect intelligence on the Confederacy and its troops. They initially entrusted that job to the famous detective Allen Pinkerton and his namesake agency. This was the first “Secret Service,” which would continue under various leaders until the end of the conflict.

The Civil War proved to be incredibly expensive for the Federal Government. To finance the war effort, the Treasury issued paper currency for the first time in its history. The economy depended on the soundness of that paper currency. Yet counterfeiters quickly began duplicating the new United States Notes. To keep counterfeiters from wrecking the economy, the wartime Secret Service began to track down and arrest them.

When the war ended, the original Secret Service was disbanded. Yet the problem of counterfeiting remained. So the government decided to revive the Secret Service as a branch of the Treasury Department, dedicated to hunting down counterfeiters and putting them out of business. This has remained one of the central missions of the United States Secret Service, and the reason why it was part of the Treasury Department from its inception in 1865 until 2003.

During its long existence, the Secret Service has taken on other roles. It helped to break up the first Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s, and operated an espionage network during both the Spanish-American War and the First World War. But of the other duties it has taken on, only protecting the President remains significant. And that duty the Secret Service acquired by accident, and held onto despite controversy.

The assassinations of two Presidents within a generation (Lincoln in 1865 and Garfield in 1881) had demonstrated the vulnerability of the nation’s chief executive. When the Secret Service in the course of an investigation learned about threats to the President in 1894, it posted two men at the White House to guard President Cleveland. There was literally no one else to do the job, for the Executive Branch did not maintain a police force. New threats later that year led Secret Service officials to post men at the Clevelands’ summer retreat. Thereafter, the Secret Service continued to protect the President.

But the protection was illegal. Congress had not authorized it. And when it became public knowledge in 1898, politicians denounced the practice as an ugly manifestation of monarchical spirit. Nevertheless, the Secret Service maintained the official detail while Congress dithered about how to protect the President. The assassination of President McKinley in 1901 demonstrated the continued need for protection. Finally, a jealous Congress authorized the Presidential detail in 1906, with the important rider that the authorization had to be renewed every year. It was not until 1951, after a failed assassination attempt on President Truman, that Congress decided to make protecting the President a permanent duty of the Secret Service.

Congressional ire at the Secret Service for exceeding its official responsibilities indirectly led to the creation of a rival agency. Just as the Secret Service had waded in to provide Presidential protection because there was no one else to do it, so, too, it had begun the practice of lending out agents to other branches of the Federal Government that required investigators. That, too, had not been authorized by law, and, once again, when congressmen found out about it, they set limits. In 1908, Congress prohibited the Service from taking funds from other government agencies or lending its agents to them.

Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (a grand-nephew of Napoleon) had frequently borrowed agents to support Justice Department investigations. To circumvent this new law, he just simply hired away a number of Secret Service agents for his new Bureau of Investigation, which would be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935. The FBI would grow to become the best-known federal law enforcement agency.

Government agencies tend to be protective of their turf. As it expanded, the FBI would take on some of the roles the Secret Service once had, such as domestic counter-intelligence. But the Secret Service has successfully resisted the FBI’s repeated attempts to make the Service a branch of the FBI or take over the Service’s two core roles of protecting the President and tracking counterfeiters.

Even today, the Secret Service still devotes much of its manpower to its original mission of pursuing counterfeiters. Indeed, it has expanded that role into investigating cybercrimes that could compromise the nation’s financial systems. But it’s the mission of protecting the President, accidentally acquired though it was, that has come to define the Service in the public’s eye. The battle against counterfeiters may wax and wane without the public being too concerned, but a single intruder at the White House is enough to force the resignation of the Director of the Secret Service.

About the Author

Brian Bixby

Brian Bixby grew up in New England and never quite managed to leave. He studies nineteenth century American culture, particularly tourism and religion. But he frequently takes time out to impersonate a nineteenth century statesman, teach courses outside of his specialty, and write fiction. Because history should be fun as well as educational.

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