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EDITORIAL FEATURE

Protecting the President

 Bruce Crumley shines a light on the U.S. Secret Service

Given the U.S. Secret Service’s very name (emphasis on the ‘secret’) it’s not surprising the public hears so little about the agency tasked with protecting American presidents. But as well as the higher-profile aspects of its operations that do get occasional attention – like the super-reinforced, highest of hi-tech presidential limousines know as “The Beast” – the lesser-known details of the Secret Service and its background are as storied and exciting as the Hollywood depictions suggest.

Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

From Counterfeiters to Conspirators

The Secret Service was founded in 1865 – as irony would have it, on the same day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Despite that coincidence, however, the agency’s original mission was not to protect the president, but rather battle the era’s rampant money counterfeiting problem. Reflecting that financial focus, the service was established as a branch of the Treasury Department, only coming under the control of the newly created Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Meanwhile, in the intervening years, one of the Secret Service’s most effective units was fully spun-off, becoming the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

FBI agent Edward Powers (L) talking with Agent Edward Hargett (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Though the Secret Service continues to combat some financial crimes, it was officially assigned the primary task of protecting presidents following the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley. As the threat of political violence has intensified and diversified over time, that Secret Service purview has expanded to cover: sitting and former presidents and their families; vice-presidents; presidential candidates; various elected American officials; and visiting foreign dignitaries.

Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

JFK and Safeguarding Against Assassination Attempts

Since the agency was officially given the job of safeguarding U.S. presidents, only a single fatality has blotted the Secret Service’s record: the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. But even that tragedy was partially mitigated by the fast reactions and bravery of agents who protected the lives of both the First Lady and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson.

Elsewhere, intervention by Secret Service operatives thwarted assassination attempts on presidents Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford – twice. Several other would-be attacks were so deftly and stealthily prevented they never came to public notice.

The evolving number, nature and complexity of potential plots have forced Secret Service planners to identify and anticipate virtually any kind of aggression imaginable – and assure appropriate and effective reaction to them all.

1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine Used by John F. Kennedy, 1963 (From the collection of The Henry Ford)

The Complicated (and Expensive) Logistics of a POTUS Visit

Those preventive preparations require vast and intricate organization, heavy-duty communications, and lots and lots of money. The Secret Service – whose staff currently exceeds 6,300 people – draws on a reported annual budget of $5 billion to provide protection and the massive logistics necessary to secure presidential movements.

These costs include Air Force One and two other planes accompanying POTUS, as well as five helicopters, over 20 armored SUVs and a large body of agents and commandos from a variety of agencies and military units. Advance work often lasts months, involving background checks of anyone even remotely involved with visits; identifying and alerting all nearby emergency and hospital services; and frequent deployment of surveillance drones to keep watch of the surrounding area

On visit day, airspace is cleared, sniffer dogs scour security areas, and roads are closed to allow fast, free movement of “The Beast” – whose door armor is reportedly eight inches thick, with weapon-proof windows, and its own oxygen supply and stock of the president’s blood type as medical precautions. Two “Beast” replicas are also brought on every presidential excursion – as back-ups or decoys – and airborne command centers and fighter jets soar overhead for both protection and communication purposes.

Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

“Renegade and Renaissance have left the building.”

And what about the stony-faced, tight-lipped, formidably buffed men and women seen accompanying the president movies, checking the surroundings from behind cool sunglasses and whispering into wrist-affixed microphones? Those iron-packing agents receive a full 27 weeks of specialized physical, arms, defense and driving training. The elite officers among them assigned to presidential units are drilled to take any action necessary to protect POTUS – including sacrificing their own lives if need be.

To date, only one Secret Service agent has died doing just that – an officer who battled the two assailants of President Truman in 1950. Several others, however, have been wounded responding to attacks.

Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)
Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)
Secret Service, Stan Wayman, 1968  (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

But in return for a danger-filled career amid obligatory public anonymity, Secret Service agents get the unique, genuinely cool privilege of referring to Presidents and First Ladies in their designated code names. Monikers used during presidential outings referred to the Kennedys as “Lancer” and “Lace,” the Reagans as “Rawhide” and “Rainbow,” the Obamas as “Renegade” and “Renaissance,” and now identify the Trumps as “Mogul” and “Muse.”

The accessibility of that information suggests that White House code names may not be the best-kept secrets of the agency’s otherwise surreptitious work.

Story by Bruce Crumley
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