Behind The Scenes With Presidential Secret Service Agents

Secret Service

Photo: Inside the Secret Service

They’re the guys in suits surrounding the President of the United States, ready to take a bullet to protect the leader of the free world.See the Secret Service >

But that wasn’t always their main role. President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Secret Service (USSS) to deal with the mad influx of counterfeit money after the Civil War. A move ironically made just hours before he was assassinated April 14,1865. Four months later the Service was fully operational.

In the 2004 run up to the 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 titled “Inside the US Secret Service.” The film follows the president’s advance team as it works with local law enforcement making sure every threat is addressed before the president arrives. 

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

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

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

The Secret Service got into the protection biz 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 at Blair House, two Puerto Rican nationals attacked in November 1950, killing one of the service agents.

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 an enemy.

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

It's pretty impossible to make an anonymous threat, so investigators focus on whether those making threats are capable of carrying them out through travel or obtaining weapons

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 itself constitutes a flying bunker

Master Special Officer Craig Miller, who worked in the New York HQ across the street from the World Trade centre, died while taking great risk to rescue victims trapped in the buildings

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

And an obstacle course, among other rigorous tests, to prove they can meet the physical demands of the job

Drivers practice on an intense evasive driving course

The site also features a half-replica of Air Force One

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

When agents like these New York 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 terrorist planning

The Counterfeit Research Unit used to only see 100 cases a year; now they have over 600. This fake Benjamin was ID'd by the commercial 'recycle' watermark.

Other forgers change the denomination on 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 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, saying: 'On that particular day, all the advantages went to the shooter'

The service completely overhauled training, increased their numbers, and created a new threat-tracking system

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

And not leaving the president's side if he goes on dangerous trips, like one President Bill Clinton took to Bangladesh and Pakistan

And one President George H.W. Bush took to Cartagena, Colombia, during the height of the drug wars

When his son, President George W. Bush, spoke at LSU, 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 execution in any situation becomes second nature to everyone involved

All the plants and seat pads were sniffed by Belgian Malinois. The breed has extremely sensitive noses and are easily trained.

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 graduation speech, the president shook hands with people whom the agents vetted before his arrival

Just 80 minutes on the ground involves thousands of hours of manpower

The Service started protecting presidential candidates when Robert Kennedy was killed during his bid for the White House

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 twice in September 1975

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 him to stop jogging on the National Mall

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

Ken Starr took advantage of this closeness by ordering Clinton's agents to testify during the investigation into his affair

Privacy versus protection will always be a delicate balance for the USSS, but their mission is preventing attacks

In a secret room, a joint operations team watches every entrance to the White House, and the First Family and vice president

In a secret room, a joint operations team watches every entrance to the White House, and the First Family and vice president

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