Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Secret Service
from The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America

Established in 1865, the Secret Service is a federal law enforcement agency of the U.S. government. It was the Federal government's first detective force. The agency was previously under the auspices of the Department of the Treasury until March 2003, when it was transferred to the newly created Department of Homeland Security, which was established by the federal reshuffling following 9/11. Otherwise referred to as the "USSS" or simply the "Service," sworn members of the Secret Service are divided into two categories—special agents and the uniformed division—and perform one of two responsibilities in accordance with their mission: "To safeguard the nation's financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy, and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events."

While the Secret Service agency initially held a treasury role with primary investigative responsibilities to suppress currency counterfeiting, the agency has evolved considerably over the years. Consequently, some responsibilities were transferred to other agencies—namely, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Today, the agency holds a dual protective role for the safety and protection of current and former national leaders and their families, such as the president, and the provision of diplomatic security for visiting foreign leaders, a service for which the agency is more commonly known. Both roles are reflected in the Secret Service's motto—"worthy of trust and confidence." Recently, the Secret Service inherited a third responsibility—the investigation of crimes committed electronically—which is shared through concurrent jurisdiction with the FBI. Based in New York City until 1874, the Secret Service is currently headquartered at 245 Murray Drive in Washington, D.C. Operating on $1.43 billion annually as of 2010, the agency includes more than 4,400 sworn members working in 150 offices in the United States and abroad under the command of Mark J. Sullivan—the 22nd director of the Secret Service, who was appointed on May 31, 2006.


The Secret Service can be traced back to the early 19th century, when the surge of counterfeits and forgeries plaguing the country required the creation of a federal agency specifically tasked to tackle these growing crimes. As such, on October 25, 1860, the U.S. Treasury allocated $10,000, and on July 5, 1865, Chief William P. Wood was officially sworn in by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCullough to command a new agency. Only two years after inception, responsibilities of the Secret Service were greatly expanded to include any person committing frauds against federal law, such as smugglers, illegal distillers, mail robbers, land frauds, and a range of other criminals, until other federal agencies were formed to take over these duties. In order to arm the Secret Service with the necessary investigatory powers, Congress enacted a plethora of new laws before the 20th century, for example, prohibiting the counterfeiting of any coin—gold or silver—in 1877 and outlawing counterfeiting and possessing forged stamps in 1865.

Finally, on August 5, 1882, an act was passed by Congress to officially recognize the agency as a division of the Treasury Department. In 1894, the Secret Service informally began to provide protection to presidents, starting with Grover Cleveland, and was officially assigned in 1902 to provide full-time protective services following the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. Congress in 1907 enacted the Sundry Civil Expenses Act in order to supply the necessary funds for this new dual responsibility of the Secret Service, budgeting $125,000 to cover 56 agents stationed in 31 offices. In 1908, nine Secret Service agents resigned from the Department of Justice in order to help establish the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1922, the Secret Service created the White House Police.

Flanked by Secret Service agents, President George W. Bush along the inaugural parade route inside an armored limousine headed toward the White House after his re-election.

Much of the expansion of the Secret Service between the early 1900s and the 1980s involved the protective diplomatic role. In the 1980s, the emergence and growth of credit and debit card usage was complemented by a rise in electronic fraud, which prompted Congress in 1984 to pass legislation making this a federal offense. In turn, this granted authority to the Secret Service to investigate these crimes, including federal-interest computer fraud and false identification documents. In 1990, the Secret Service began to share jurisdiction concurrently with the FBI in order to civilly and criminally investigate any cases related to federally insured financial institutions. During this decade, Congress enacted two key laws—the 1994 Crime Bill Public Law, which prohibited the manufacturing, trafficking in, or possession of American currency counterfeited abroad, making this an offense punishable as if committed in the United States.

In 1998, Congress enacted the Telemarketing Fraud Prevention Act, which allowed the Secret Service to confiscate fraud proceeds in convicted cases, including conspiracy to perpetuate such an offense if done through telemarketing. In the same year, the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act was also enacted, thereby creating the crime of identity theft with penalties for anyone knowingly and illicitly using another person's identity for the purpose of committing unlawful activity.

The new millennium saw many changes and some high-profile cases for the Secret Service. Shortly after September 11, 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act armed the agency with the necessary legal artillery to rapidly expand operations, for example, with increased investigative powers to deal with fraud and other crimes involving computers. In addition to increasing penalties for counterfeiting violations and forgeries and vesting the agency with more power to respond to transnational terrorist financing, this legislation provided former director of the Secret Service Brian Stafford with the authority to establish an extensive nationwide network of electronic crime task forces for purposes of detecting, preventing, and investigating electronic financial crime and similar activities, such as cyber attacks, committed through computers against financial infrastructures, government agencies, private industry, and academic institutions in the United States. In 2006, this database greatly expanded from 15 to 24 nationwide task forces, in cities around the United States, because of productive public-private partnerships.

During this decade, the Secret Service was also involved in many high-profile cases, for example, Operation Firewall in 2004, leading to the arrests of 28 American and foreign suspects in six countries for identity theft, electronic fraud, and conspiracy charges; in 2008, 11 American and foreign individuals were charged with the theft of more than 40 million credit cards. Since 2003, these efforts have resulted in more than 29,000 arrests with a 98 percent conviction rate and have led to the seizure of $295 million in counterfeited currency. Since this time, the Secret Service has also closed cases with losses amounting to $3.7 billion and has helped thwart more than $12 billion in potential losses.

See Also: Computer Crime; Counterfeiting; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Federal Policing; Identity Theft; Terrorism; USA PATRIOT Act of 2001; Washington, DC.

Further Readings
  • Ansley, N. "The United States Secret Service: An Administrative History." Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, v.47/1 (1956).
  • Baker, L. C. A History of the United States Secret Service. Middlesex, UK: Wildhern Press, 2009.
  • Johnson, David R. Illegal Tender: Counterfeiting and the Secret Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
  • U.S. Secret Service. "Fiscal Year 2009 Annual Report." (Accessed February 2001).
  • U.S. Secret Service. (Accessed January 2011).
Michael J. Puniskis
Middlesex University
© 2012 SAGE Publications, Inc

Related Articles

Full text Article Secret Service
Encyclopedia of Intelligence & Counterintelligence

Although an organization calling itself the Secret Service conducted espionage for the Union during the American Civil War, the entity known...

Full text Article SECRET SERVICE
Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement

The Secret Service was instituted as a bureau under the Treasury Department on July 5, 1865. At the time of its creation, the Secret Service bore...

Full text Article U.S. SECRET SERVICE
The Encyclopedia of Police Science

In an irony of history, on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the U.S. Secret Service, the agency today that...

See more from Credo