Behind The Scenes With Obama's Now-Embattled Secret Service Unit

They haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory lately, but the guys in suits surrounding the President of the United States are still ready to take a bullet to protect the leader of the free world.

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The Secret Service wasn’t always intended to be the president’s last, best line of defence. Abraham Lincoln created the United States Secret Service (USSS) to deal with the influx of counterfeit money after the Civil War — a move ironically made just hours before he was assassinated on April 14,1865. Four months later the Service was fully operational.

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election George W. Bush spoke at Louisiana State University (LSU), where National Geographic took a closer look at the Secret Service for a documentary called “Inside the US Secret Service.” The film follows the president’s advance team as it worked with local law enforcement to make sure every conceivable threat to the president addressed before he arrived.

National Geographic doesn’t spill all the secrets, but what they let us in on is still pretty cool.

Much of the country's top intelligence work takes place in this unmarked Washington, D.C. building.

The United States Secret Service can't afford to underestimate the enemy in their mandate to protect the man, protect the symbol and protect the office of the President of the United States.

Within the Washington HQ is the National Threat Assessment Team, Intelligence Division, Counterfeit Research Unit, Electronic Crime Branch, and Tracking Center.

The Tracking Center monitors the president, former presidents, and visiting dignitaries. In a secret room, a joint operations team watches every entrance to the White House, along with the First Family and vice president.

The Secret Service got into the protection business in 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley. That mission had to be reauthorized every year until Harry Truman's term.

When President Truman was staying across the street from the White House at Blair House in November of 1950, two Puerto Rican nationals attacked, killing one service agent.

Congress then sent Truman a bill authorizing permanent protection. Upon signing it, the president said, 'It's wonderful to know the work of protecting me has at last become legal.'

Today, every threat is investigated. Voice analysts listen to all phoned-in threats for accents, speech impediments, or other nuances that could identify a potential enemy.

Letters are loaded into the Forensic Information System for Handwriting (FISH), then analysed for fingerprints and eventually immersed in a chemical bath to expose the sender's DNA.

With the Secret Service's resources it's almost impossible for a threat to remain truly anonymous. So investigators focus on whether those making threats are capable of carrying them out through travel or obtaining weapons.

Immediately following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the USSS activated something called a 'Continuity of Government' plan ...

... which extended protection to the speaker of the house, president pro tempore of the senate, and secretary of state.

The agents whisked away the president in Air Force One, which is practically a flying bunker.

To make sure agents are capable of responding on instinct to any scenario, they train at a hidden site in Beltsville, Md., that features bombing, sniping, and other threat contingencies.

An obstacle course, among other rigorous tests, proves that an agent in training can meet the physical demands of the job.

Agents practice on an intense evasive driving course ...

... and the site even features a half-replica of Air Force One.

Agents have to prove proficiency with their weapons, usually a .357 SIG Sauer Magnum, every month. The calibre ensures any threat is 'neutralized' as quickly as possible.

When agents catch a counterfeiting ring, the service re-creates the bust in a training environment in order to pass on tactics and techniques to the new guys.

Dirty money funds serious threats such as illegal arms trading, drug trafficking, and terrorism.

The Counterfeit Research Unit used to only see 100 cases a year; by 2013 they have over 600. This giveaway on this fake Benjamin was a commercial 'recycle' watermark.

Other forgers change the denomination on the actual bill. Paper money gets a legal makeover every 5 to 7 years to throw off counterfeiters.

The Service also changes policies in response to emerging threats. For instance, the president now rides in an armoured car with windows that are as thick as phone books ...

... instead of a convertible. One of the agents on President John F. Kennedy's detail said the USSS failed in its mission to protect the president: 'On that particular day, all the advantages went to the shooter.'

After Kennedy's assassination, the service completely overhauled its training methods, increased its numbers, and created a new threat-tracking system.

Since 1 in 4 presidents has been attacked -- and 1 in 10 have been killed -- agents keep a tight bubble, even hiding in the bushes on the White House lawn.

And they don't leave the president's side, especially when he goes on dangerous trips like this one that President Bill Clinton took to Bangladesh and Pakistan ...

... or this one that President George H.W. Bush took to Cartagena, Colombia, during the height of the country's drug wars.

When President George W. Bush spoke at LSU during the 2004 presidential election campaign, weeks of planning went into mitigating risks -- and he wasn't even leaving the States.

Two Air Force C-141 cargo planes carried equipment, personnel, and the president's limousine -- affectionately called 'The Beast' -- to Baton Rouge.

Each of the 14,000 seats, more than 100 entrances, and all the air ducts and catwalks in LSU's stadium were meticulously inspected.

The USSS and local law enforcement meet regularly to discuss plans, so that execution in any situation becomes second nature to everyone involved.

All the plants and seat pads were sniffed by Belgian Malinois, which have extremely sensitive noses.

Before the president arrives, the Baton Rouge airport is shut down, and snipers take their positions.

The grounds are also given a full sweep for bombs and other threats.

After the speech, the president shook hands with people -- who the agents vetted before his arrival.

Just 80 minutes on the ground involves thousands of hours of planning and execution.

The Service also started protecting presidential candidates after Robert Kennedy was killed during his bid for the White House in 1968.

Candidates want to seem accessible, but the Service finds ways, like this armoured banner, to discreetly guard them.

The agents monitor crowds for strange behaviour during unplanned campaign stops, which often become chaotic and loud.

The ability to read a crowd helped agents save Gerald Ford in September 1975 -- twice ...

... once from this woman, Manson Family member Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, and later from Sara Jane Moore.

After two such close calls, the Service tightened their bubble of protection even more, although John Hinckley Jr. still got close enough to President Ronald Reagan to fire six shots, injuring three people.

After a gunman fired an assault weapon outside the White House during Clinton's presidency, agents asked the president to stop jogging on the National Mall.

Presidents get very little privacy, and their detail is privy to most of their personal information.

Special Prosecutor Ken Starr took advantage of this closeness by ordering Clinton's agents to testify during the Monica Lewinsky scandal ...

Privacy versus protection will always be a delicate balance for the USSS, but their mission is preventing attacks against the most powerful individual on earth.

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