History of the U.S. Secret Service: How did it move from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of Homeland Security?

The U.S. Secret Service is a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security. Considered one of the oldest federal law enforcement agencies, the Secret Service has a storied history that stretches back to the end of the Civil War.

Initially established in 1865 as part of the Treasury Department, its primary mission was to combat the widespread counterfeiting of U.S. currency, a significant threat to the nation’s economy at the time.

Today, it is internationally recognized for its dual roles: safeguarding the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems, and providing protective services to the nation’s leaders and visiting dignitaries.

Below, World History Edu provide a broad overview of the U.S. Secret Service, highlighting its key missions, operations, and historical background:

Founding and Early Years

The Secret Service was founded on July 5, 1865, by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch. At the time, it was estimated that one-third to one-half of all currency in circulation was counterfeit. The agency’s creation was a direct response to this financial crisis, aiming to restore public confidence in the U.S. currency. The Secret Service’s initial focus was on investigating counterfeiting, fraud, and other financial crimes.

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Expansion of Duties: Protective Services

The role of the Secret Service expanded significantly after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. In the wake of this tragedy, Congress informally requested the Secret Service to provide presidential protection. This role became official in 1906, marking the beginning of the agency’s protective mission.

Over the years, the Secret Service’s protective duties have grown to include not just the President and Vice President but also their immediate families, former Presidents and their spouses (unless they decline protection), visiting heads of state, and major presidential candidates.

The Secret Service’s legal powers and duties are defined in Title 18 U.S.C. 3056, outlining its authority for protection, investigation, and law enforcement activities as mandated by U.S. law. Image: A picture of the flag belonging to the U.S. Secret Service.

Technological Innovations and Methodologies

The Secret Service has consistently been at the forefront of technological advancements in law enforcement and security. The agency has developed sophisticated methods for advanced security planning, threat assessment, and counterfeit detection. It employs a range of technologies from cybersecurity measures to protect the financial infrastructure, to advanced communication and surveillance equipment in the protective services arena.

Notable Investigations and Protective Missions

Throughout its history, the Secret Service has been involved in numerous high-profile investigations and operations. Its success in dismantling counterfeit rings, uncovering financial frauds, and thwarting threats against protected persons has cemented its reputation as a premier law enforcement agency.

The agency’s involvement in significant events, such as presidential inaugurations, international summits, and the United Nations General Assembly, highlights its expertise in managing complex security operations.

Challenges and Criticisms

Like any large organization, the Secret Service has faced challenges and criticisms. Incidents involving security breaches, misconduct by agents, and questions about the agency’s resource allocation have led to public scrutiny. In response, the Secret Service has taken steps to address these issues through reforms, increased transparency, and the implementation of stricter protocols for agents and officers.

The Secret Service Today

Today, the Secret Service continues to evolve in response to emerging threats and changing priorities. Its dual mission encompasses a wide range of activities, from investigating cyber and financial crimes to providing security for national special security events. The agency’s commitment to innovation, excellence, and integrity remains central to its operations.

The U.S. Secret Service’s evolution from a small bureau focused on combating currency counterfeiting to a sophisticated law enforcement agency with a global presence underscores its importance to the United States.

The Secret Service’s dedication to its mission ensures that it remains an indispensable part of the country’s defense and law enforcement community. Image: Seal of the Secret Service.

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Badge of the U.S. Secret Service

The badge of the United States Secret Service has evolved over time, reflecting changes in the agency’s mission and identity. Initially, the badge was a simple design featuring the agency’s name and a shield emblem. As the Secret Service’s responsibilities expanded beyond combating counterfeit currency to include protection duties, the badge likely underwent modifications to reflect this broader mandate.

These changes have included alterations to the badge’s shape, size, and design elements, such as incorporating symbols related to protection or law enforcement.

For example, during Chief Hiram C. Whitley’s tenure in 1869, Secret Service operatives were permitted to obtain their own badges. In 1873, the first standard badges were issued. Then, in 1875, a badge featuring the “Service Star” emblem was designed, symbolizing the agency’s core values. Subsequent modifications were made for practicality, culminating in a smaller badge in 1890.

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Frequently asked questions about the U.S. Secret Service

Here are some frequently asked questions about the U.S. Secret Service, covering a range of topics related to its mission, operations, and history:

What is the primary mission of the U.S. Secret Service?

The U.S. Secret Service has two core missions: protection and investigation. The protective mission involves ensuring the safety of the President of the United States, the Vice President, their families, visiting heads of state, and major candidates for those offices. The investigative mission focuses on safeguarding the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems against a wide range of financial and electronic crimes, including counterfeiting, fraud, and cybercrime.

When was the Secret Service established, and why?

The Secret Service was established on July 5, 1865. It was initially created as part of the Department of the Treasury to combat the widespread counterfeiting of U.S. currency that occurred after the Civil War. At the time, it was estimated that one-third to one-half of the currency in circulation was counterfeit, severely threatening the economy.

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How does one become a Secret Service agent?

Becoming a Secret Service agent requires a rigorous selection process. Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree, pass a series of physical fitness tests, and undergo a thorough background investigation, including a polygraph examination. They must also pass a written examination and a series of interviews. The training involves completing both the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center’s basic training and the Secret Service’s own specialized training program.

Can the Secret Service make arrests?

Yes, Secret Service agents have full law enforcement powers, including the authority to make arrests without a warrant for crimes committed in their presence or when they have reasonable grounds to believe that an individual has committed or is committing a felony related to their missions.

The men and women who work at the U.S. Secret Service contribute immensely to the Department of Homeland Security’s common mission of protecting the American people from harm. Image: A picture of the Secret Service Cyber Intelligence Center.

Does the Secret Service protect the President of the United States only while in office?

The Secret Service protects the President and the Vice President throughout their time in office and even after they leave office, although former Presidents may decline Secret Service protection if they choose. The protection extends to their spouses, unless they remarry, and their children until they reach the age of 16.

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How is the Secret Service involved in cybersecurity?

The Secret Service’s investigative mission includes protecting the nation’s financial infrastructure from a wide range of financial and electronic crimes, including cybersecurity threats. The agency investigates crimes such as hacking, identity theft, and other forms of cyber fraud, particularly those that affect the nation’s banking and financial systems.

What kind of training do Secret Service agents receive?

Secret Service agents undergo extensive training in both protective and investigative missions. This includes firearms proficiency, physical combat techniques, emergency medical training, and advanced driving skills. Agents also receive specialized training in cybersecurity, counterfeit currency detection, and other aspects of financial crime investigation.

Why is it called the Secret Service?

Its operations were meant to be secretive to effectively investigate and apprehend counterfeiters without alerting them. Thus, it became known as the “Secret Service.” While its mandate has expanded over time to include protection duties, the name has remained unchanged.

Who is in charge of the Secret Service?

The Secret Service is led by a Director, who is appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The Director oversees the agency’s operations and reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Does the Secret Service carry blood?

Yes, the Secret Service typically carries blood for emergency medical situations. This is part of their standard emergency medical response protocol to provide immediate assistance in case of injuries or medical emergencies during protective missions.

How does the Secret Service plan for the protection of high-profile events?

The Secret Service undertakes meticulous planning and coordination for the protection of high-profile events, such as presidential inaugurations, international summits, and the United Nations General Assembly. This involves threat assessment, securing perimeters, coordinating with other law enforcement agencies, and preparing for a wide range of emergency scenarios.

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What role did the Secret Service play in the past related to counterfeiting?

The original mandate of the Secret Service was to suppress counterfeit currency, a significant problem following the Civil War. The agency was instrumental in reducing the circulation of counterfeit money and restoring faith in the U.S. currency system. Today, while the Secret Service still investigates counterfeiting, its mission has expanded to include a broader range of financial and electronic crimes.

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How does the Secret Service differ from the FBI?

While both the Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are federal law enforcement agencies, they have different primary missions.

The Secret Service focuses on the protection of national leaders and the investigation of financial and electronic crimes, especially those affecting the nation’s financial infrastructure.

The FBI, on the other hand, has a broader mandate that includes investigating federal crimes across a wide range of categories, including counterterrorism, cybercrime, and organized crime.

The Secret Service collaborates extensively with various law enforcement levels and the private sector, ensuring mission success. This teamwork spans local, state, federal, and international agencies, emphasizing the importance of partnerships in achieving comprehensive security and investigative outcomes.

Timeline of the U.S. Secret Service

Get a broad overview of the U.S. Secret Service by viewing a timeline of important historical milestones throughout its history.


Founded on July 5, 1865, within the Treasury Department, the Secret Service was established to combat counterfeiting. William P. Wood became its first chief, inaugurated by the U.S. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch.


By 1867, the Secret Service expanded its duties beyond counterfeiting to tackle various frauds against the government. This led to probes into activities by the Ku Klux Klan, illicit distillers, smugglers, mail robbers, and land frauds, among other legal violations, marking the agency’s growing role in enforcing federal law.


In 1870, the Secret Service moved its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to New York City, then returned to Washington four years later to continue its operations.


The first U.S. Secret Service commission book was issued.


In 1877, Congress enacted legislation to combat economic fraud by making it illegal to counterfeit any coin, gold, or silver bar. This law aimed to protect the integrity of the nation’s currency and financial stability, reinforcing the government’s commitment to uphold the value of its monetary system against fraudulent activities.


In 1882, Congress recognized the Secret Service as a separate entity within the Treasury Department, formalizing its role. Despite this acknowledgment, the agency’s operations remained contingent on annual funding appropriations, lacking permanent legislative support. This financial dependency continued until July 16, 1951, when enabling legislation finally provided a more stable foundation for its activities.


Starting in 1894, the Secret Service initiated informal, part-time protection for President Grover Cleveland. This marked the beginning of the agency’s protective duties for the President, a role that would later become formalized and significantly expanded in scope and importance.


In 1895, Congress enacted a law making it illegal to counterfeit or possess counterfeit postage stamps, further expanding the Secret Service’s mandate to protect the integrity of governmental documents and financial instruments.


Following President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Congress requested that the Secret Service begin protecting U.S. presidents, marking the start of its formal role in ensuring the safety of the nation’s highest office, a key responsibility that continues to this day.


In 1902, the Secret Service took on the full-time role of protecting the President, dedicating just two agents to the White House Detail. This small team marked the humble beginnings of what would evolve into a comprehensive protection operation for the nation’s leader.


In 1906, the Sundry Civil Expenses Act for 1907 was passed by Congress, allocating funds specifically for the Secret Service to provide protection to the President, formally establishing financial support for this critical aspect of their mission.


Secret Service operatives tackled western land frauds, reclaiming millions of acres for the government. Operative Joseph A. Walker was tragically killed on November 3, 1907, during one of these investigations.


In 1908, the Secret Service expanded its protective duties to include safeguarding the President-elect, ensuring their security during the vulnerable transition period before taking office.


In 1913, through the Treasury Department Appropriations Act, Congress granted permanent protection for the President and formalized the provision of security for the President-elect, solidifying these roles as enduring responsibilities of the Secret Service.


In 1915, President Wilson tasked the Secretary of the Treasury with directing the Secret Service to investigate foreign espionage activities within the United States, expanding its responsibilities to include national security concerns beyond its traditional financial protection duties.


In 1917, through the Treasury Department Appropriations Act, Congress expanded the Secret Service’s protective mission to include the President’s immediate family, ensuring their safety alongside the nation’s leader.


In 1917, Congress made it a federal offense to threaten the President, whether by mail or any other method, enhancing the legal framework to protect the nation’s leader.


In 1922, at President Warren G. Harding’s request, the White House Police Force, now known as the Uniformed Division, was established, initially supervised by the President’s military aide and the Director of Public Buildings.


In 1930, President Hoover enacted Public Law 71-221, transferring supervision of the White House Police Force to the Secret Service, integrating it into the agency’s protective mission.


The Secret Service “operatives” were now referred to as “agents.”


On November 1, 1950, Private Leslie Coffelt of the White House Police was fatally shot by Puerto Rican nationalists during an attack aimed at President Truman at the Blair House. His bravery and sacrifice underscored the risks faced by those tasked with protecting the nation’s leaders, marking a somber moment in Secret Service history.


In response to the 1950 attack on President Truman, Congress passed Public Law 82-79, permanently establishing Secret Service protection for the President, his immediate family, the President-elect, and the Vice President, should he choose to accept it.


U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

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Following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Congress enacted Public Law 83-195, ensuring protection for Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and her minor children for two years, recognizing the continued risk to the family of a slain president.


In 1965, Public Law 89-141 made attempting to assassinate the President a federal crime, reinforcing legal protections for the nation’s leader.


In 1965, Public Law 89-186 granted lifetime Secret Service protection to former Presidents and their spouses, with optional four-year coverage for their widows and minor children, unless declined, enhancing security for presidential families post-office.


In 1967, Public Law 90-145 extended Secret Service protection to the widow and minor children of a former President, specifically Mrs. Kennedy and her children, until March 1, 1969.

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In 1968, Public Law 90-608 authorized lifelong Secret Service protection for a former President’s widow until death or remarriage and for their minor children until age 16, unless declined.


Following Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, Congress enacted Public Law 90-331, authorizing Secret Service protection for major presidential and vice presidential candidates and nominees.


In 1970, the White House Police Force became the Executive Protective Service under Public Law 91-217, expanding its duties to safeguard diplomatic missions in Washington, D.C.


In 1971, Congress granted the Secret Service authority to protect visiting foreign dignitaries or officials as directed by the President, broadening its protective mission.

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In 1971, 60 acres designated for training facilities became the Secret Service’s exclusive James J. Rowley Training Center, enhancing agent preparation and operational readiness.


Phyllis Shantz broke new ground as the first female officer sworn into the Executive Protective Service, now known as the Uniformed Division, marking a significant milestone in the organization’s history.


In 1971, Laurie Anderson, Kathryn Clark, Sue Baker, Holly Hufschmidt, and Phyllis Shantz made history as the first female Special Agents of the Secret Service, pioneering gender inclusion in federal law enforcement.


On May 15, 1972, an assassination attempt targeted George Wallace, then a presidential candidate, in Laurel, Maryland. The attack underscored the risks faced by public figures and the critical importance of security measures for political candidates.


In 1974, Public Law 93-552 was enacted, extending Secret Service protection to include the immediate family of the Vice President, further safeguarding the lives of those closely connected to national leadership.


In 1975, President Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts in California, highlighting significant security challenges for the Secret Service.


On November 15, 1977, the Executive Protective Service was officially renamed the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division, reflecting its critical role in protecting the White House and diplomatic missions.


An assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981.


The Treasury Police Force merges into the Secret Service Uniformed Division.


The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, under Public Law 103-322, classified overseas counterfeiting of U.S. currency as an extraterritorial crime, extending U.S. legal jurisdiction globally.


In 1994, Public Law 103-329 established that Presidents serving before 1997 would receive lifetime Secret Service protection, while those elected afterward are granted 10 years of protection post-presidency.


The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, which housed the Secret Service’s field office, tragically resulted in the deaths of six Secret Service members among 168 total fatalities, marking one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. soil.


In 1996, Public Law 104-208 empowered the Secret Service to investigate crimes involving the creation or distribution of fake financial instruments representing U.S. or foreign entities.


The 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act (Public Law 105-318) made identity theft a federal crime, penalizing unauthorized use of another’s identification to commit or assist in unlawful activities, underlining the seriousness of this offense.


During the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Secret Service agent Craig J. Miller was tragically killed among over 2,800 victims. The agency’s New York Field Office in World Trade Center Building 7 also collapsed in the aftermath.


On March 1, 2003, the Secret Service transitioned from the Department of the Treasury to the newly established Department of Homeland Security. Acknowledging its pivotal role in safeguarding leaders and critical infrastructure, the Secret Service aligns with DHS’s mission to protect Americans.


Barbara Riggs, a seasoned Secret Service agent, achieved a historic milestone by becoming the agency’s first female Deputy Director. Her appointment marked a significant step forward in gender diversity within the organization’s leadership ranks.


In May, protection commenced for presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, marking the earliest initiation of Secret Service protection for a candidate. Senator Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, received protection upon entering the race.

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In 2008, Congress passed the “Former Vice President Protection Act” (H.R. 5938), extending Secret Service protection for former Vice Presidents, their spouses, and children under 16 for six months post-office.


The 56th Presidential Inauguration, under President Barack Obama, was the largest and most intricate event managed by the Secret Service. It encompassed five National Special Security Events, each meticulously secured by the agency.


The 2012 Former Presidents Protection Act overturned a prior statute, ensuring Secret Service protection for former presidents and their families for life, regardless of their service date. The law also guarantees protection for former presidents’ children up to age 16.


Julia A. Pierson became the first female Director of the United States Secret Service upon her swearing-in on March 27, 2013, marking a historic milestone for the agency.


Joseph P. Clancy became the 24th Director of the United States Secret Service on February 18, 2015.


Randolph D. “Tex” Alles became the 25th Director of the United States Secret Service on April 25, 2017.

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James M. Murray became the 26th Director of the U.S. Service.


Kimberly Cheatle, a veteran law enforcement officer, became the 27th Director of the United States Secret Service. She has over two decades of experience in various roles within the agency. In 2021, President Biden awarded Cheatle a Presidential Rank Award for exceptional performance.

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