What Exactly Do Taxpayers Pay the Secret Service For?

When the Secret Service scandal initially broke, I, like many taxpayers wondered, exactly, the Secret Service actually did beyond accompanying the President outside of the White House. In my stereotypical mind's eye, they all looked like Clint Eastwood as Frank Horrigan in The Line of Fire, constantly searching for scary potential assassins that looked like John Malvokich.

With that in mind, I decided to do a little research and figure out - beyond the hookers and debauchery making news now - what taxpayers pay the Secret Service to do.

Until recently, the Secret Service was part of the Department of the Treasury. Weird, huh? But true. For more than 100 years, the Secret Service was a part of Treasury, just like IRS. The agency was created in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln to crack down on counterfeiting. Ironically, the legislation that created the agency was on Abraham Lincoln's desk the night he was assassinated.

The Secret Service still has a lead in covering Treasury-related roles such as counterfeiting, fraud and false IDs; in 2011, the Secret Service recovered $154.7 million in counterfeit currency, arrested 2,471 individuals domestically and assisted our foreign law enforcement partners with the arrest of 386 suspects internationally for counterfeiting offenses.

However, the Secret Service was removed from the Department of Treasury in 2003, when then President Bush switched it over to the Department of Homeland Security. Now, the Secret Service focuses more on protective roles, ensuring the safety of certain political figures and foreign embassies. Protection has been a key component after the 1901 assassination in public of President William McKinley. It wasn't until later, however, with the passage of the Sundry Civil Expenses Act for 1907, that Congress provided taxpayer funds for Presidential protection by the Secret Service.

The role of the Secret Service in protecting Presidents and politicians has since become much more broad. The Secret Service now protects:

  • The President, the Vice President, the President-elect and the Vice President-elect;
  • The immediate families of The President, the Vice President, the President-elect and the Vice President-elect;
  • Former Presidents who served through 2000 and their spouses (except when the spouse divorces or remarries) for their lifetimes;
  • Former Presidents who leave office after 2001 and their spouses for a period of not more than 10 years from the date the former President leaves office;
  • The widow or widower of a former President who dies in office or dies within a year of leaving office for a period of one year after the President's death (may be extended)
  • Children of former Presidents until the age of 16 or 10 years after the former President leaves office, whichever is earlier;
  • Former Vice Presidents, their spouses, and their children under the age of 16 for a period of six months from the date the former Vice President leaves office (may be extended, as in the case of former Vice President Dick Cheney);
  • Visiting heads of states or governments and their spouses;
  • Distinguished foreign visitors to the United States;
  • Official representatives of the United States performing special missions abroad whom the president deems important enough for protection outside the Diplomatic Security Service;
  • Other individuals as designated per executive order of the President; and
  • National Special Security Events, when designated as such by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Those individuals who are entitled to receive protected may decline protection, with the exception of the President, the Vice President, the President-elect, and the Vice President-elect - for obvious reasons.

Today, while we still link presidential protection to the Secret Service, it's not their only task. The Treasury Department background is still evident when it comes to the Secret Service's finance-related duties. The Service is charged with investigating forgery of government checks, and some kinds of wire fraud and credit card fraud. While not considered an active piece of the federal government intelligence, the Secret Service inherited these duties years ago before the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service officially existed.

Today, the Secret Service has over 6,500 employees: 3,200 Special Agents, 1,300 Uniformed Division Officers, and 2,000 technical and administrative employees. Last year, the Secret Service provided protective details, uniformed officers, and field agents for 5,616 domestic travel stops and 399 international travel stops. Secret Service agents also made 9,022 arrests; those related to financial crimes increased 8.48% over the previous year resulting in the stoppage of $5.6 billion in potential losses.

In terms of costs, the Secret Service budget request for 2013 totals $1.6 billion, which is a decrease of $65.8 million. Decreases include the elimination of Secret Service grant funding for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and a decrease of $41.2 million in protection associated with the 2012 Presidential Campaign (since it will have concluded). The 2013 budget does, however, include the cost of protective details for the final month leading up to the general election, security for debate site and the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

With respect to campaigning, major presidential and vice presidential candidates and their spouses were added to the list of those entitled to Secret Service protection following the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The Secret Service has no role in determining who is to be considered a major candidate. In accordance with Title 18, United States Code, Section 3056, the determination of who is considered a "major" candidate is made in consultation with an advisory committee comprised of the Speaker of the House, the House Minority Whip, the Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader and one additional member chosen by the committee. Interestingly, President Obama received protection during his candidacy beginning in May 2007, the earliest initiation of Secret Service protection for any candidate in history. That's a bit misleading (kind of, sort of) since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was being protected before she entered the race as the former First Lady.

For the current election, the first candidate to be offered protection was Herman Cain in November 2011; his detail was deactivated following his withdrawal from the race. Since that time, the Secret Service has assumed protection for two additional presidential candidates: former Governor Mitt Romney (code name reportedly "Javelin") and former Senator Rick Santorum (code name reportedly "Petrus"). Former Representative Newt Gingrich reportedly had his detail deactivated this week even though he's still in the race; taxpayers had been grumbling over the nearly $40,000 per day cost when the nomination is clearly out of his grasp. Ron Paul has never accepted Secret Service protection, calling it a "form of welfare. You're having the taxpayers pay to take care of somebody."

So there you have it. The Secret Service may look, feel and be funded differently than it was initially intended in 1865. But much of the mission remains the same: "to safeguard the nation's financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy" as well as "to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events." They also look pretty cool in the movies.

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