Look, up in the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it the superhero in the blue Spandex and the red cape? No, it's a Secret Service agent, pacing the roof while he scopes out good vantage points. What's he looking for? A nice spot for a hot date? A launching point for his hang glider?
Actually, this federal Secret Service agent is part of the President's protective detail advance team, preparing for the President's upcoming visit in a few days. The agent and his team are traversing the entire motorcade route, looking for locations where bad guys could lie in wait for the President's limo. The agents can't confine their search to the ground, as a determined, skillful assassin can certainly shoot from above. In fact, once the Secret Service clears this building, they'll probably put a law enforcement sniper up there themselves. This top marksman might be a federal agent, or might be a member of another law enforcement agency cooperating with the President's protective detail. The military might even send in a bomb disposal team or two, just for good measure.
Okay, we've established that the Secret Service protects the President. Just who else do they protect? Well, there's a long list of people, some of whom will surprise you. We've got the President, Vice President, and others who might be next in line for succession, such as the Speaker of the House. If there's just been an election, the President-elect and Vice President-elect receive protection, along with the immediate families of all of the above officials. Finally, the major Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, along with their spouses, get protection within 120 days of this general election.
Here's where it gets interesting. Previous Presidents and their spouses receive Secret Service protection, unless the spouse marries somebody else, which means the new spouse isn't deemed to be worth much. Former Presidents' kids get protection until they turn 16. Visiting heads of state and their accompanying spouses get protection, as well as other special foreign visitors. Guess the feds don't want any of these people getting bumped off on American soil.
In addition, the Secret Service is the lead investigative agency on the financial crime beat. The Secret Service goes after counterfeiters, Treasury bond and securities thieves, and credit card fraudsters. Computer and telecommunications fraud, identity theft and some other bank-related crimes also fall within the Secret Service's purview. They even get involved in fraudulent ID documents and foreign securities cases...investigating them, that is. These guys are incredibly busy. Good thing the Secret Service has roughly 3,200 agents on staff, working in the DC headquarters as well as in United States field offices. In total, the Secret Service staffs 150 offices throughout the world.
Here's what you might not realize: The Secret Service is actually a self-contained federal law enforcement agency, which means it's not part of the FBI or CIA. However, the Secret Service does operate under the Department of Homeland Security's oversight. You might also wonder why it's called the “Secret Service.” What's so secret about it? Well, in 1865, the Treasury Department launched its “Secret Service Division” to combat the massive epidemic of currency counterfeiting. At the time, roughly one-third to one-half of the circulated currency was fake. Sounds like today's counterfeiters have some catching up to do. The Treasury Department managed the Secret Service until 2003, when Homeland Security got the agency into its clutches...er, under its jurisdiction.
Let's say you're hired as a Secret Service agent. We'll get to the qualifications part later. Right now, however, you're freshly appointed and off to your initial training. What can you expect? First, you're ferried off to the Georgia-based Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, where you complete the 10-week Criminal Investigator Training Program. This course provides you with a good framework for the rest of your training.
Now you get shlepped off to the 17-week Secret Service academy course near DC. Now you're learning about the nitty-gritty of protective and investigative work. You'll get a nice mix of physical protective techniques, financial fraud detection, emergency medicine, and intelligence techniques...all wrapped up in one neat package. If you get bored in the classroom, you can work on your physical conditioning, water survival, and shooting skills.
However, your training doesn't stop there. You'll have to regularly requalify with your firearm and emergency medicine skills. If you're assigned to protective work, you'll have lots of simulated crisis drills, where you'll have to quickly respond to many different situations using your arsenal of skills. If you're working in field offices, you can attend other law enforcement agencies' training programs, and you can also take additional criminal investigative courses. If your head's not exploding yet, it might when you undertake some of the agency's management development classes.
Clearly, Secret Service agents' jobs aren't for slackers or workers content with a predictable 9-to-5 job. Agents must have an excellent work ethic, incredible attention to detail, and an almost annoying degree of persistence. They must also accept the fact that, in protective situations, they're the last line of defense between their protectees and people with evil, violent intentions. Ironically, it might be a Secret Service agent's desire for work that really drives him (or her) to take these risks.
Okay, you've looked at a Secret Service agent career, and some parts of the job intrigue you. Overall, though, you might like a law enforcement career with a different set of parameters. If you like the DC vibe, consider the Secret Service uniformed police division, or perhaps the Capitol Police. You might enjoy a U.S. Marshal career, which would definitely provide a never-a-dull-moment work week, and could station you anywhere in the country. A private investigator career would satisfy your voracious desire to ferret out the bad guys.