U.S. Secret Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Secret Service is one of the country’s oldest federal law-enforcement agencies. Aside from its main task of protecting the president and other national and foreign officials, the service has played an integral part in investigating various types of business and financial crimes that threaten the country’s economic well-being.

On April 14, 1865, during the administration of President Abraham Lincoln, the Secret Service was created under the auspices of the Department of the Treasury. Its main function at the time was to prevent Treasury notes and U.S. currencies from being Counterfeitingcounterfeited and disseminated. For much of the nineteenth century, the American currency system had been in utter disarray and rife with corruption and illicit activity. At one point, each state had one or more versions of its own coin and paper currency. More than one-third of all paper currency in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century was estimated to be counterfeit.Secret Service, U.S.

In its first few decades of operation, the Secret Service shut down hundreds of counterfeiting operations throughout the United States. However, the Secret Service was also directed to look into many cases that fell outside its investigative realm. At various times, the presidents directed the Secret Service to investigate individuals involved in the Teapot Dome scandal, frauds committed by members of the government, and the activities of any U.S. citizen who posed a threat to the government and the people of the United States. The groups most frequently targeted by the Secret Service were those that exhibited antigovernment sentiment (for example, the Ku Klux Klan).


Ironically, the same evening that President Lincoln authorized the creation of the Secret Service, he was assassinated at a theater in Washington, D.C., by John Wilkes Booth. This was the first time in U.S. history that a president was assassinated. Presidency, U.S.;protection ofThe public was outraged and petitioned Congress to find a way to protect future presidents. It took Congress thirty-six more years to furnish this protection. During that period, two other U.S. presidents–James A. Garfield and William McKinley–were assassinated before the protection of presidents was added to the duties and responsibilities of the Secret Service. After the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, the U.S. Congress in 1906 created a federal law stating that the protection of the president of the United States was a distinct duty and responsibility of the Secret Service. In 1917, a verbal or written threat against a president or any members of the president’s family became a federal offense. This law was later broadened to cover the vice president and any family members in 1951.

The president’s secret service men, probably in the 1920’s or 1930’s.

(Library of Congress)

The protective role of the Secret Service has grown substantially since its inception. There are two divisions of Secret Service personnel who are responsible for various protective assignments. The first division is made up of special nonuniformed agents who act as personal bodyguards for various governmental dignitaries. These agents are specially trained and prepared for many years before being assigned to this duty. The second group is uniformed Secret Service officers who carry out their duties much like regular police officers. These uniformed officers, created in 1922 by President Warren G. Harding, are a visible presence charged with providing security at such places as the White House, the vice president’s residence, all buildings in which presidential offices are located, all U.S. Treasury buildings, all foreign embassies in Washington, D.C., and any other federal facilities throughout the United States deemed by the president to need further security.


The primary investigative mission of the Secret Service continues to be counterfeiting and other financially related crimes. Since the early 1980’s, Congress has expanded the investigative responsibilities of the Secret Service to include credit card fraud, crimes involving specific types of forgery, computer fraud, and any crimes related to various types of American financial institutions. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Secret Service was also mandated to investigate certain crimes related to domestic terrorism, especially incidents involving school violence and hate groups; certain cases of money laundering; and major identity-theft cases. The Secret Service is the only federal agency that has been delegated explicit federal investigative power over identity-theft cases.


In 2003, the U.S. Secret Service became part of the Department of Homeland Security. As of 2008, the Secret Service had roughly 5,000 employees in various field offices both in the United States and overseas. Nearly 1,200 were uniformed officers assigned to protect various federal facilities affiliated with the president, vice president, 170 foreign embassies, and the Department of Homeland Security. Most of these facilities were in the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. Close to 3,000 special agents were assigned to either investigative or protective duties in Washington, D.C., throughout the continental United States, and overseas. A special agent is trained in both protective and investigative functions and is expected to be able to perform the duties and responsibilities of both roles anytime and anywhere.

Further Reading
  • Bullock, Jane, et al. Introduction to Homeland Security. Boston: Butterworth-Heineman, 2006. Provides a detailed look at the restructuring of many federal law-enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service.
  • Holden, Henry. To Be a U.S. Secret Service Agent. St. Paul, Minn.: Zenith Press, 2006. Offers insight into both the history and the recruitment and training of secret service agents.
  • Hulnick, Arthur S. Keeping Us Safe: Secret Intelligence and Homeland Security. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Explains the new and expanded roles of many federal agencies, including the Secret Service, after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
  • Melanson, Philip. The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2005. The most complete and accurate look at the history of the U.S. Secret Service.
  • Petro, Joseph, with Jeffrey Robinson. Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2005. The real-life testimony of a former Secret Service agent, who often gives candid behind-the-scene accounts of his work.

Business crimes



U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Identity theft

September 11 terrorist attacks

U.S. Department of the Treasury

Categories: History