Secret Service evolves to adapt to new home

After 137 years in the Treasury Department, the Secret Service must balance new missions and old as it adjusts to being a cornerstone of the Homeland Security Department.

Five months after 9/11 upended Americans' sense of security forever, the 2002 Winter Olympics opened in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake police Lt. Chris Burbank had spent two years planning how to protect the largest enclosed area at the Games: nine square blocks downtown containing the medals plaza, the skating arena, the media center, countless festival booths-and an estimated 1 million visitors every day. For the two weeks of the Olympics, "my command became the largest police agency in Utah," Burbank said. "I had over a thousand employees," more than twice the entire roster of the Salt Lake City police.

Burbank had had to borrow personnel: police from other cities, state troopers, National Guard soldiers, and a whole array of federal agents. The complexity and the scale of the mission went well beyond anything even a veteran street cop such as Burbank had ever handled. But, like the little bit of catalyst that makes a chemical reaction work, just a dozen people from one small federal agency helped pull the rest of Burbank's 1,000-strong command together. That agency was the U.S. Secret Service.

"I knew the local law enforcement; my Secret Service counterpart understood the federal system," said Burbank, who shared an office with the Secret Service's lead agent for downtown and worked with him "every single day."

"They were very good at coordinating the federal assets-bringing FBI together to work with Customs, bringing Customs to work with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms," said Robert Flowers, Utah's Commissioner of Public Safety, in describing the Secret Service. "There is no way, in the times in which we live, that one agency can provide everything that is needed at a large event. It took a great deal of coordination we've never had to do before."

How did the agency that protects the president get the security assignment for the Winter Olympics, and, for that matter, the 2002 Super Bowl and the upcoming 2004 national party conventions? The answer has a lot to do with the respect the Secret Service has earned among state and local officials such as Flowers and Burbank.

It also reflects how organizations can evolve in unexpected ways. Founded in 1865 to catch counterfeiters, the Secret Service informally-and at times, without legal authority-took on the job of protecting the president in 1894. In the late 1990s, those two missions branched into new roles in safeguarding cyberspace and in providing protection during "National Special Security Events" such as the Olympics. From 1998 to 2003, as Al Qaeda ramped up its war against the United States, the Secret Service's roster of agents grew by 40 percent; its budget jumped by 80 percent. And this spring, after 137 years in the Treasury Department, the service was folded into the new Homeland Security Department, reporting directly to Secretary Tom Ridge. That reorganization has threatened the Secret Service's long-standing jurisdiction over financial crimes on the one hand, and on the other, has given it added influence on critical decisions in organizing the new department.

The Secret Service is a small agency, not an alternative to the CIA or to the FBI (which was formed in 1908 with agents transferred from the service). But it has developed unique strengths, especially in bridging the traditional divides between federal, state, local, and private-sector organizations. The challenge for the service in its new bureaucratic home will be applying its specialized expertise to the broad security of the homeland, without diluting the focus that has long given the agency its strength.

Preventing and Protecting

The secret of Secret Service protection is that it goes far beyond the business-suited bodyguards standing beside the president. "The average person ... they see people with earpieces," said William Pickle, a former special agent in charge of the division that protects the vice president; he is now the Senate sergeant at arms. "What they see is really just the tip of the iceberg." Whether it is protecting the president, some other dignitary, a location, or an event, the Secret Service sets up layered defenses extending far out from the target in both time and space-and relies heavily on other agencies to help man those defenses.

In New Orleans, for example, local authorities had protected special events at the Superdome for years before 9/11, but "the focus of the security effort was inside the dome itself and at the doors of the dome," said Jay Mayeaux of Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness. When the 2002 Super Bowl was designated a National Special Security Event, Mayeaux said, the Secret Service showed the locals how to push the perimeter out, creating a 100-foot buffer zone ringed with steel fencing and concrete Jersey barriers. Agents also helped the locals work with the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the airspace above the event.

Secret Service defenses can get pretty aggressive. "Countersurveillance teams" of service agents working alongside local officers monitor anyone who is watching event security too closely, said Lt. Peter Durham, a Los Angeles police officer who has worked closely with the Secret Service for years and has copied its techniques. The ideal is not just to know when terrorists are scouting out a potential target, but to track them back to their hideouts and hit them there, pre-emptively, Durham said, "on our terms-not responding to their terms."

This surveillance starts a week or two before even the most routine presidential trip, when advance teams scout out potential venues and motorcade routes-with Secret Service agents and local police working hand in hand-to chart potential danger zones and avenues of escape. The service also pools intelligence on potential threats with local officials and other federal agencies. The Secret Service is "a big consumer of intelligence," said James Simon, former assistant director of the CIA. And operating in a field rife with turf wars and miscommunications, the service has enjoyed remarkable cooperation from both foreign intelligence agencies and the FBI. "They have a fair amount of legal authority to compel you to cooperate," Simon said, but self-interest is just as important: If an agency shares with the Secret Service a report that saves the president, he said, "they're all heroes."

The aim of all these elaborate precautions is to prevent attacks from happening. Indeed, this longtime emphasis on prevention is a hallmark of the Secret Service, and stands in stark contrast to most homeland-security efforts since 9/11, which have focused on beefing up capabilities to respond after an attack, said Dr. Saul B. Wilen, president of the San Antonio-based consulting think tank International Horizons Unlimited. Prevention is also the opposite of traditional law enforcement's focus on catching criminals after the crime. Unlike the FBI, "the Secret Service was in the preventive business prior to 9/11," said one Clinton National Security Council official. "That's one of the reasons why they got the National Special Security Events beat."

President Clinton gave the service the lead role at major events after a pipe-bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games exposed the coordination problems among the multiple local and federal agencies involved. Clinton's decision still rankles the FBI. After all, the bureau provides the largest chunk of federal personnel at major public events-including agents to oversee critical capabilities in command posts and intelligence. The Secret Service's leading role, however, is less the mighty bulwark of the defense than the linchpin that holds everything together.

"There's no way an agency of that size has the capability to provide all of the manpower or the resources," said Terry Ebbert, homeland-security chief for New Orleans, who worked on the 2002 Super Bowl. "But they bring the capability to bring people to the table.... It allowed us to deal with agencies that we had never really thought too much about."

The service's greatest weakness, its small size, is also the source of its greatest strength: its ability to bring other agencies together. John Magaw, an Ohio highway patrolman who joined the service and rose to become its director, said: "When I came into the Secret Service, I remember one of the first things said to me: 'We're a relatively small federal agency.... We can never, ever, on any single day, do this job by ourselves.' "

Just moving the president through a dense urban area such as Manhattan can require several thousand security personnel to watch the streets and rooftops-a task that would take just about every Secret Service agent on Earth. "They acknowledge openly they can't do it without police departments," said New York's former deputy commissioner of police, Edward Norris, who is now the state police superintendent in Maryland. And "that's the reason the relationship is so good" between the service and local police.

Even in day-to-day operations, the service has to lean on locals in a way that larger agencies, such as the FBI, simply don't have to. And the service has learned to work with state and local agencies in a way that the FBI, historically, has not. "Whether it's on a protective detail or a counterfeiting investigation ... they never came in and told me the way it was going to be, or pretended they knew more about my city than I did," said John Cohen, a former California police detective who is now a consultant. "That's another reason you saw them placed in that position [of special-events lead] as opposed to, say, the FBI."

FBI agents are tired of being portrayed as overbearing G-men out of the J. Edgar Hoover era. "That's certainly a myth whose time it is to die," said Kathleen McChesney, former executive assistant director of the FBI. And in all fairness, most local officers interviewed for this article said the FBI's legendary bad attitude either had been overhyped or at least had much improved in recent years, especially since 9/11. The difference between the two agencies is that the Secret Service's collaborative habits are rooted in a hundred years of history-not just in working with locals on presidential protection, but also in the service's original mission: chasing counterfeiters.

From Counterfeiting to Cyber-Crime

The oldest federal investigative agency was created to protect the currency and the president, in that order. When the service was founded in 1865, at least one banknote out of every three in circulation was fake, posing a tremendous threat to a largely cash-based economy. As credit became increasingly important, the Secret Service spent much of the 20th century chasing forged checks. And when the economy started to go electronic in the early 1980s, the service took on the job of tracking down financial frauds committed with an "access device"-a credit card, an ATM, or a computer. The service's latest target: identity theft.

These kinds of crime are complex and arcane. "It takes an expertise that not a lot of people in the state and local [agencies] really have," said Gary McLhinney, a veteran Baltimore cop who is now chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. Instead of fighting with the Secret Service for jurisdiction, McLhinney said, "we were more than willing to give them what we had."

But the service doesn't just take financial cases off the locals' hands. It also helps locals learn how to pursue fraud cases themselves. The service provides "a whole lot of training we otherwise wouldn't get ... free," said Norris, a veteran of both the New York City and Maryland state police. And even where local departments have the training and resources to root out complex frauds, crooks tend to cross state lines. When locals went after check counterfeiters in the Kansas City area, "as soon as we realized it was Kansas and Missouri both, we went to the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Postal Service," said Sgt. Roy Orth, head of Kansas City, Missouri's forgery squad. The Secret Service provided high-tech surveillance gear, training, office space, and even some overtime pay for local investigators. It also had the authority to bring big-gun federal charges. Said Orth, "We ended up with 28 federal indictments and warrants."

Cooperation among law enforcement agencies is a good start-but to really get a handle on financial crime, law enforcement also needs to work with the businesses being defrauded. The Secret Service has more than a century invested in good relations with the financial services sector. (To be fair, businesses also work closely with the FBI, which has overlapping jurisdiction in many financial crimes.) The Secret Service has a reputation for being sensitive to corporate concerns, which don't always focus on catching crooks and racking up convictions. Especially in the shadowy world of computer crimes, "corporations would rather see problems go away than report them to law enforcement," said John Frazzini, a former Secret Service electronic-crimes specialist. He recalled cases where companies actually asked law enforcement not to pursue a hacker because the negative publicity from publicly filing charges could tarnish the company's image with clients and investors-and that might hurt business more than the electronic attack itself.

Attempts to protect cyberspace run smack into a paradox. Collectively, it is in everyone's interest for the corporate victims of cyber-attacks to share information about the intrusions as fast and far as possible, so others can shore up weak spots in their systems before they are hit. But individually, it is in no company's interest to divulge vulnerabilities that could hurt its interests in the marketplace or encourage other hackers. The way out of this box is trust. Companies will share the specifics of how they were hit by hackers only in a forum where they are confident that law enforcement, and their competitors, will not publicize their embarrassments.

Many attempts have been made to create such a forum. The most ambitious effort is the FBI's InfraGard program, which after a slow start now shares information on cyber-crime with more than 9,000 member companies, drawn from all major industries, in 80 chapters nationwide. By contrast, the Secret Service has kept its response small and focused. In 1995, the service's New York City field office brought together federal, state, and local agencies in an Electronic Crimes Task Force, linked to the financial services sector in Manhattan by confidential e-mail, to discuss defenses against the latest virus. The task force holds regular meetings complete with case-study seminars and training scenarios, and provides a vast network of informal contacts.

The key to the task force's good relations with business, said Winn Schwartau, founder of, is, "they'll be your law enforcement support buddy, without taking over.... You can talk to them off the record, 'hypothetically,' and they'll advise you"-without automatically launching a formal investigation.

The USA PATRIOT Act, which Congress passed after 9/11, called for more Electronic Crimes Task Forces. Nine are now operating around the country, with four more starting up. And this dramatic expansion into cyberspace is just one of the roles the Secret Service is taking on in the new era of homeland security.

New Roles

For 137 years, the Secret Service was part of the Treasury Department. The bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission's pre-9/11 proposal for a homeland-security department didn't mention the Secret Service at all. But in the backroom discussions that produced the final Bush administration plan, it was decided that the agency that protected the president, the White House, and major national events should logically be part of the Department of Homeland Security. This move's consequences-intended and otherwise-are already apparent.

The service's biggest fear was that, cut off from Treasury, it would lose its jurisdiction over financial crimes to the FBI. Said Pickle: "If the Secret Service loses its criminal-investigation authority, it will be a death knell."

So when the Homeland Security and Justice departments explicitly agreed to give the FBI precedence in financial investigations related to terror, Secret Service Director Ralph Basham objected. Basham's memo leaked to the press, causing the kind of minor uproar the publicity-shy service seeks to avoid. (Secret Service headquarters declined all requests for interviews for this article and confined itself to written responses to questions.) Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, quoted the agreement as stipulating, "DHS will investigate matters related to terrorism and terrorist financing only with the consent of the FBI." But in practice, Roehrkasse added, that agreement affects only the small number of Secret Service cases with a terrorist connection, as opposed to the vast majority that are ordinary criminal frauds. Sources connected to the service seem satisfied, for now, that their core mission is uncompromised. Although the agreement is a win for the FBI, it is not a big one.

Magaw said the key for the service is "to, in some way, keep very important investigative responsibilities. They cannot and should not ever become a [purely] protective unit."

The reason, Pickle said, is that protective duty "can be mind-numbing after several years." This burnout, he argues, is the main problem within the service's Uniformed Division. (See sidebar, p. 2865.) The service always starts new recruits on financial investigations in field offices, to sharpen their skills and build those precious connections to the locals for six to eight years before it rotates them to full-time protective details in Washington-and most agents rotate back to the field after just three to five years here.

Even as the Secret Service struggles to retain its oldest mission, Homeland Security officials are also drawing agents into new areas. The service has detailed personnel to all four of the new department's operating divisions, as well as to the liaison office charged with strengthening relations with state and local agencies. The arm of Homeland Security with the largest contingent of Secret Service detailees, about 10 agents, is the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection division, which is charged with protecting electronic networks and thousands of "critical infrastructure" sites ranging from bridges to fuel depots. With many more potential targets than the government can realistically survey, let alone guard, the IAIP is drawing on the Secret Service's preventive approach, and on its long experience with the private sector, to develop techniques that companies can use to assess and address their own vulnerabilities. As at the 2002 Olympics, the specialized expertise brought by small cadres of agents gives the service influence far out of proportion to its size.

Even so, Homeland Security cannot simply scale up the Secret Service's methods for protecting the president to cover the entire country. The key to the service's success is staying small. It focuses on what are, in the national scheme of things, narrowly defined targets-the president, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, New York City's financial services sector-and thus avoids spreading itself too thin or getting into too many turf wars with other agencies. The Secret Service can afford to do this. But a department charged with protecting the entire homeland cannot pick and choose its battles so selectively.

Nor can Homeland Security do everything. The homeland is just too huge, even for a department with 170,000 employees. The lesson that John Magaw was taught as a new agent in the Secret Service applies to the Department of Homeland Security as well: "We can never, ever, on any single day, do this job by ourselves."

So perhaps the most important lesson the department can learn from its in-house protective service is how to work with other departments and agencies at all levels-and not just to work with them, but to empower them. Look at Louisiana, for example. A year after the Secret Service led security for the 2002 Super Bowl, New Orleans hosted college basketball's Final Four tournament. This multiday event was in many ways more complicated than the Super Bowl, and it was held at the height of the Iraq war-but it was not designated a National Special Security Event. The Secret Service and other federal agencies participated in the security efforts, but in a purely supportive role. Having learned from working with the Secret Service on the Super Bowl, the New Orleans Police Department took the lead this time.

It is like the old parable about the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to catch fish. The Secret Service has long conducted formal training for local agencies in protection and in financial investigations; but a presidential visit or a National Special Security Event is a teaching opportunity as well. Every time the service comes to town, the locals learn something-maybe about perimeter security, or countersurveillance techniques, or hunting hackers, or, especially important in the complex post-9/11 world, how to partner with a wide range of other agencies.

After working with the service and other federal agencies on the 2002 Olympics, Utah Public Safety Commissioner Flowers said, "We now have a Ph.D. in large-event planning in the state of Utah."

The Olympics were a huge "opportunity to learn," agreed Lt. Burbank in Salt Lake City. "I've used my contacts in the Secret Service as a resource several times since the Olympics," he said. "As a local cop, I have expanded my expertise and my ability to interact with the federal government a hundredfold."

If the Department of Homeland Security is to make America truly safer, it will need to take advantage of the same kind of multiplier effect. No single agency can blanket the entire country with protection. But it can help local governments, businesses, and citizens learn how to best protect themselves. And it can learn a lot about how best to do that from the Secret Service.