Police History: How the mission of the United States Secret Service has grown

The United States Secret Service (USSS) is one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the country and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year


In a bit of irony, on the day he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln approved a plan for the formation of what became the United States Secret Service (USSS). The USSS is now one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies in the country and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. 

Origins and Many Milestones
By the end of the Civil War, nearly one-third of all currency in circulation was counterfeit. Consequently, the financial stability of the country was jeopardized. In 1865, the USSS was established as a bureau in the Department of Treasury with the goal of suppressing the widespread counterfeiting of U.S. currency. In 1877, Congress passed an act prohibiting the counterfeiting of any coin, gold, or silver bar.

During the early days of the USSS, a wide range of outrageous counterfeit schemes were investigated, and it was a difficult job. Operatives worked in all conditions, seven days a week, and pursued criminals until the cases were solved.

In 1883, the USSS was officially acknowledged as a distinct organization within the Treasury Department. The agency performed a variety of assignments and investigations during the Spanish-American War and World War I that later became the responsibility of other government agencies, such as investigations into land fraud, peonage cases, naturalization fraud, the citrus and beef industries, oil reserves, as well as counter-espionage activity.

After President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Congress authorized the USSS to protect the President of the United States under Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 3056.

The law also authorizes the USSS to protect the vice president of the U.S., other individuals next in order of succession to the Office of the President, the president and vice president’s immediate families, former presidents and their spouses for their lifetimes,  the children of former presidents until age 16, foreign heads of state and their spouses visiting the U.S., major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses, and the president-elect, vice president-elect and their spouses.

The USSS has grown slowly from a small bureau staffed by less than 10 operatives in 1865 to a law enforcement organization of more than 6,000 employees worldwide. Staffing changed as a result of recommendations from the Warren Commission and the heightened threats to the national economy. Historically, because of the strong public image and history of the Secret Service, applicants were drawn to the agency. 

The first five female Special Agents of the USSS were sworn-in on December 15, 1971. The first female Uniform Division officers were hired in September 1970. 

On June 4, 1980, Special Agents Julie Cross and Lloyd Bulman were conducting a counterfeit surveillance near the Los Angeles International Airport. Two unknown males approached their vehicle from the rear and accosted the agents. Agent Cross was shot and pronounced dead at the scene. She was the first female agent killed in the line of duty. The suspects also shot at Agent Bulman and fled the scene thinking Bulman was dead. However, Bulman survived.

The Modern-Day USSS
With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the USSS established a nationwide network of Electronic Crimes Task Forces (ECTFs) which provide a productive and cooperative crime-fighting environment in which participants conjointly and effectively make a significant impact on electronic crimes. This approach has generated unprecedented partnerships among federal, state, and local law enforcement, the private sector, and academia. 

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the PROTECT Act of 2003, known as the “Amber Alert Bill,” which gave full authorization to the USSS to provide forensic and technical assistance in matters involving missing and exploited children. Consequently, the USSS has supported the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and local law enforcement agencies with its expertise in forensic photography, graphic arts, video production, audio and image enhancement, voice identification, computerized three- dimensional models and video and audio tape duplication. 

In 2008, the USSS marked five years under the Department of Homeland Security and, in those five years, the service made nearly 29,000 criminal arrests for counterfeiting, cyber investigations, and other financial crimes — 98 percent of which resulted in convictions and seizure of more than $295 million in counterfeit currency.

In 2009, the 56th presidential inauguration was the largest and most complex event ever overseen by the USSS. The agency supervised the design and implementation of the security plan for five separate national special security events that came under the umbrella of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The USSS ensured the safety for each event and protectee as well as the nearly two million people that were estimated to have attended the event.  This was accomplished by the USSS working closely and in cooperation with local, state, federal security, public safety and military partners. 

The USSS is selective in its hiring and enforces high standards of conduct. In the last few decades, the diverse and highly qualified work force has been attained by leveraging relationships with public and private universities as well as minority serving institutions and organizations. The Outreach Branch is currently and actively working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to fully engage the social media realm to attract and retain top talent. The agency will soon have an activated presence on LinkedIn and anticipates utilization of a YouTube video recruiting channel in the future. 

Throughout history, the USSS has played a significant role in law enforcement. The scope and expansion of duties over the years has led to the development of a sophisticated and highly acclaimed professional law enforcement agency. In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the agency has much to recognize throughout its history that is replete with accomplishment and rich with pride. 

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