Secret Service special agents are employed by the U.S. Secret Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Secret Service agents work to protect the president and other political leaders of the United States, as well as heads of foreign states or governments when they are visiting the United States. Special agents also investigate financial crimes. The U.S. Secret Service employs about 5,000 people, about 2,100 of whom are agents.
History of Secret Service Special Agent Career
The Secret Service was established in 1865 to suppress the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. After the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, the Secret Service was directed by Congress to protect the president of the United States. Today it is the Secret Service’s responsibility to protect the following people: the president and vice president (also president-elect and vice president-elect) and their immediate families; former presidents and their spouses for 10 years after the president leaves office (spouses lose protection if they remarry; all former presidents up to and including President Clinton receive lifetime protection, as this law changed in 1997); children of former presidents until they are 16 years old; visiting heads of foreign states or governments and their spouses traveling with them, along with other distinguished foreign visitors to the United States and their spouses traveling with them; official representatives of the United States who are performing special missions abroad; major presidential and vice-presidential candidates and, within 120 days of the general presidential election, their spouses.
The Job of Secret Service Special Agents
Secret Service special agents are charged with two missions: protecting U.S. leaders or visiting foreign dignitaries (likewise, U.S. leaders on missions to other countries) and investigating the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. Special agents are empowered to carry and use firearms, execute warrants, and make arrests.
When assigned to a permanent protection duty—for the president, for example—special agents are usually assigned to the Washington, D.C., area. They are responsible for planning and executing protective operations for those whom they protect at all times. Agents can also be assigned to a temporary protective duty to provide protection for candidates or visiting foreign dignitaries. In either case, an advance team of special agents surveys each site that will be visited by those whom they protect. Based on their survey, the team determines how much manpower and what types of equipment are needed to provide protection. They identify hospitals and evacuation routes and work closely with local police, fire, and rescue units to develop the protection plan and determine emergency routes and procedures, should the need arise. A command post is then set up with secure communications to act as the communication center for protective activities. The post monitors emergencies and keeps participants in contact with each other.
Before the officials arrive, the lead advance agent coordinates all law enforcement representatives participating in the visit. The assistance of military, federal, state, county, and local law enforcement organizations is a vital part of the entire security operation. Personnel are told where they will be posted and are alerted to specific problems associated with the visit. Intelligence information is discussed and emergency measures are outlined. Just prior to the arrival of those whom they protect, checkpoints are established and access to the secure area is limited. After the visit, special agents analyze every step of the protective operation, record unusual incidents, and suggest improvements for future operations.
Protective research is an important part of all security operations. Protective research engineers and protective research technicians develop, test, and maintain technical devices and equipment needed to provide a safe environment for their charge.
When assigned to an investigative duty, special agents investigate threats against those the Secret Service protects. They also work to detect and arrest people committing any offense relating to coins, currency, stamps, government bonds, checks, credit card fraud, computer fraud, false identification crimes, and other obligations or securities of the United States. Special agents also investigate violations of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, the Federal Land Bank Act, and the Government Losses in Shipment Act. Special agents assigned to an investigative duty usually work in one of the Secret Service’s 125 domestic and foreign field offices. Agents assigned to investigative duties in a field office are often called out to serve on a temporary protective operation.
Special agents assigned to investigate financial crimes may also be assigned to one of the Secret Service’s three divisions in Washington, D.C., or they may receive help from the divisions while conducting an investigation from a field office. The Counterfeit Division constantly reviews the latest reprographic and lithographic technologies to keep a step ahead of counterfeiters. The Financial Crimes Division aids special agents in their investigation of electronic crimes involving credit cards, computers, cellular and regular telephones, narcotics, illegal firearms trafficking, homicide, and other crimes. The Forensic Services Division coordinates forensic science activities within the Secret Service. The division analyzes evidence such as documents, fingerprints, photographs, and video and audio recordings.
The Secret Service employs a number of specialist positions such as electronics engineers, communications technicians, research psychologists, computer experts, armorers, intelligence analysts, polygraph examiners, forensic experts, security specialists, and more.
For some 15 years, Norm Jarvis has been a special agent for the Secret Service. He has protected a variety of U.S. political leaders including former presidents Clinton, Nixon, Carter, and Ford. He has also protected foreign dignitaries including the president of Sudan and the prime minister of Israel. In addition, Jarvis has investigated criminal activity in a number of cities and served in the Secret Service’s Montana and Utah field offices.
While his primary responsibility is to investigate crimes, Jarvis is called out regularly to protect a political or foreign leader. During those times, he serves as a member of a team of special agents who work to ensure there is always a “protective bubble,” a 360-degree virtual boundary of safety, surrounding the person they are protecting, regardless of whether he or she is in a moving or stationary location. Protective operations can be complicated, with special agents working together around the clock, using intelligence and special technologies, and working in conjunction with local authorities to make sure the person is safe. “We don’t believe anybody can do bodyguard work just by walking around with somebody,” Jarvis says. “Scowls and large muscles don’t mean a lot if somebody is determined to kill you.” While special agents don’t change their protective techniques when they work overseas, they often work in conjunction with foreign security agencies. “Other security forces usually defer to the Secret Service, which is considered a premier security agency,” Jarvis says.
When Jarvis is not on a protective assignment, he spends his time investigating a variety of crimes. Special agents assigned to smaller field offices typically handle a wide variety of criminal investigations. But special agents usually work for a specialized squad in a field office, handling specific investigations like counterfeit currency, forgery, and financial crimes. Special agents may receive case referrals from the Secret Service headquarters, from other law enforcement agencies, or through their own investigations. Investigating counterfeit money requires extensive undercover operations and surveillance. Special agents usually work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement for counterfeiting cases. Through their work, special agents detect and seize millions of dollars of counterfeit money each year—some of which is produced overseas. Special agents working in a fraud squad often receive complaints or referrals from banking or financial institutions that have been defrauded. Fraud cases involve painstaking and long-term investigations to reveal the criminals, who are usually organized groups or individuals hiding behind false identifications. Special agents working for forgery squads often have cases referred to them from banks or local police departments that have discovered incidents of forgery.
Secret Service Special Agent Career Requirements
You can help prepare for a career as a special agent by doing well in high school. You may receive special consideration by the Secret Service if you have computer training, which is needed to investigate computer fraud, or if you can speak a foreign language, which is useful during investigations and while protecting visiting heads of state or U.S. officials who are working abroad. Specialized skills in electronics, forensics, and other investigative areas are highly regarded. Aside from school, doing something unique and positive for your city or neighborhood, or becoming involved in community organizations can improve your chances of being selected by the Secret Service.
The Secret Service recruits special agents at the GS-5 and GS-7 grade levels. You can qualify at the GS-5 level in one of three ways: obtain a four-year degree from an accredited college or university; work for at least three years in a criminal investigative or law enforcement field and gain knowledge and experience in applying laws relating to criminal violations; or obtain an equivalent combination of education and experience. You can qualify at the GS-7 level by achieving superior academic scores (defined as a grade point average of at least 2.95 on a 4.0 scale), going to graduate school and studying a directly related field, or gaining an additional year of criminal investigative experience.
All newly hired special agents go through nine weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, and then 11 weeks of specialized training at the Secret Service’s Training Academy in Beltsville, Maryland. During training, new agents take comprehensive courses in protective techniques, criminal and constitutional law, criminal investigative procedures, use of scientific investigative devices, first aid, the use of firearms, and defensive measures. Special agents also learn about collecting evidence, surveillance techniques, undercover operation, and courtroom demeanor. Specialized training includes skills such as fire fighting and protection aboard airplanes. The classroom study is supplemented by on-the-job training, and special agents go through advanced in-service training throughout their careers.
New special agents usually begin work at the field offices where they first applied. Their initial work is investigative in nature and is closely supervised. After about five years, agents are usually transferred to a protection assignment.
In addition to the educational requirements, special agents must meet the following criteria: Be a U.S. citizen; be at least 21 and less than 37 years of age at the time of appointment; have uncorrected vision no worse than 20/60 in each eye, correctable to 20/20 in each eye; be in excellent health and physical condition; pass the Treasury Enforcement Agent exam; and undergo a complete background investigation, including in-depth interviews, drug screening, medical examination, and polygraph examination.
The Secret Service is looking for smart, upstanding citizens who will give a favorable representation of the U.S. government. The agency looks for people with strong ethics, morals, and virtues, and then they teach them how to be special agents. “You can be a crackerjack lawyer, but have some ethical problems in your background, and we wouldn’t hire you as an agent even though we would love to have your expertise,” Norm Jarvis says.
Special agents also need dedication, which can be demonstrated through a candidate’s grade point average in high school and college. Applicants must have a drug-free background. Even experimental drug use can be a reason to dismiss an applicant from the hiring process. Special agents also need to be confident and honest— with no criminal background. “It’s important as a representative of the President’s Office that you conduct yourself well, that you look good, and that you’re able to command some respect,” Jarvis says. “Anything even as minor as shoplifting is an indicator of a personality problem.”
Since special agents must travel for their jobs—Jarvis spends about 30 percent of his time on the road—interested applicants should be flexible and willing to be away from home. Jarvis says the traveling is one of the downfalls of the job, often requiring him to leave his wife and two children at a moment’s notice.
Exploring Secret Service Special Agent Career
The Secret Service offers the Stay-In-School Program for high school students. The program allows students who meet financial eligibility guidelines to earn money and some benefits by working part time, usually in a clerical job, for the agency. There are many requirements and application guidelines for this program, so contact the Secret Service’s Stay-In-School office at the address given at the end of this article.
The Secret Service also offers the Cooperative Education Program as a way for the agency to identify and train highly motivated students for careers as special agents. Participants in this paid program learn more about the Secret Service and gain on-the-job training, with the possibility of working full-time for the Secret Service upon graduation. The two-year work-study program includes classroom training and hands-on training that will prepare students for the following Secret Service careers: accountant, budget analyst, computer specialist, computer research specialist, electronic engineer, intelligence research specialist, management specialist, personnel management specialist, telecommunications specialist, and visual information specialist. Students working toward a bachelor’s degree must complete 1,040 hours of study-related work requirements.
To be considered for the program, you must be enrolled full-time in an accredited educational program; be enrolled in your school’s cooperative education program; maintain a 3.0 grade point average in either undergraduate or graduate studies; be a U.S. citizen; be enrolled in a field of study related to the position you are applying for; pass a drug test; and pass a preliminary background investigation and possibly a polygraph test. Male applicants born after December 31, 1959, must be registered with the Selective Service System or be legally exempt from doing so. Further, your school must sign a working agreement with the Secret Service.
There is also a Cooperative Education Program for criminal investigators (special agents), which, in addition to the general requirements stated above, requires that participants be enrolled in a graduate or law degree program and pass polygraph and medical examinations. This two-year program, available only in the Washington, D.C. area, provides rudimentary training for the special agent position, introducing participants to the investigative and protective techniques that agents use.
Students in the Cooperative Education Program work part time, which is between 16 and 32 hours a week. They may work full time during holidays and school breaks. They receive some federal benefits including a retirement plan, life and health insurance, annual and sick leave, holiday pay, awards, and promotions.
You must submit a variety of forms to apply for this program, so contact the Secret Service’s Cooperative Education coordinator at the address given at the end of the article for more information. In addition, you may be able to apply for the program through the cooperative education program at your school.
Norm Jarvis didn’t set out to become a special agent. As a teenager, he admired a neighbor who worked as a deputy sheriff. As Jarvis grew older and had to make decisions about college and work, he realized he wanted to go into law enforcement. At the age of 18, he volunteered to go into the U.S. Army to train with the military police. When Jarvis left the service, he used his veteran’s benefits to help him get a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Westminster College. “I have an innate interest in why people do the things they do,” he says. Norm also earned a master’s degree in public administration from Utah University. He spent eight years working as a police officer before he decided to apply to the Secret Service. He wasn’t satisfied with his police officer’s salary and was tired of the “day-to-day emotional trauma of being an officer.” Jarvis loved to travel and was impressed by some special agents he had met, so he decided that becoming a special agent would be a way for him to progress professionally and work in an exciting position.
The Secret Service warns that because they have many well-qualified applicants and few anticipated vacancies, the chance that you will be hired is limited. On top of that, the hiring process can take up to a year or more because of the thoroughness of the selection process.
If you are ready to apply for a special agent job, make sure you meet the requirements described above, then submit a typewritten Standard Form 171, Application for Federal Employment. If you have graduated from college, you will also need to submit an official transcript. Alternatively, you can submit an Optional Application for Federal Employment or a resume, but you will have to complete some accompanying forms, so be sure to check with the Secret Service field office nearest you before doing so to find out exactly what forms to fill out. The field office in your area should be listed in the government section of your telephone book.
The Secret Service only accepts applications for current job openings. To find out what vacancies currently exist, use the contact information at the end of this article.
Norm Jarvis began working in the Secret Service’s Salt Lake City field office in 1984. He was transferred to the Organized Crime Task Force in the Washington, D.C. field office in 1987. In 1990 Jarvis was promoted to the position of instructor at the Office of Training, and he was transferred to the Presidential Protective Division in 1994. Jarvis went to Montana in 1997 after being promoted to the position of resident agent of the Great Falls field office. Currently he is a special agent once again in the Salt Lake City office.
Generally, special agents begin their careers by spending five to 10 years performing primarily investigative duties at a field office. Then they are usually assigned to a protective assignment for three to five years. After 12 or 13 years, special agents become eligible to move into supervisory positions. A typical promotion path moves special agents to the position of senior agent, then resident agent in charge of a district, assistant to the special agent in charge, and finally special agent in charge of a field office or headquarters division. Promotion is awarded based upon performance, and since the Secret Service employs many highly skilled professionals, competition for promotion is strong.
Special agents can retire after 20 years and after they reach the age of 50. Special agents must retire before the age of 57. Jarvis plans to continue working with the Secret Service until retirement. When he does retire, Jarvis does not plan on pursuing law enforcement activities. Instead, he would like to earn a doctorate in psychology, sociology, or criminology and teach at the college level.
Some retired agents are hired by corporations to organize the logistics of getting either people or products from one place to another. Others work as bodyguards, private investigators, security consultants, and local law enforcement officials.
Special agents generally receive Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP) on top of their base pay. Agents usually start at the GS-5 or GS-7 grade levels, which in 2006 were $25,195 and $31,209, respectively, excluding LEAP. (Salaries may be slightly higher in some areas with high costs of living.) Agents automatically advance by two pay grades each year until they reach the GS-12 level, which in 2006 was $55,360, excluding LEAP. Agents must compete for positions above the GS-12 level; however, the majority of agents reach GS-13—$65,832, excluding LEAP, in 2006—in the course of their careers. Top officials in the Secret Service are appointed to Senior Executive Service (SES) positions; they do not receive the availability pay. Top SES salaries are well over $150,000 a year.
Benefits for special agents include low-cost health and life insurance, annual and sick leave, paid holidays, and a comprehensive retirement program. In addition, free financial protection is provided to agents and their families in the event of job-related injury or death.
A Secret Service special agent is assigned to a field office or one of three Washington, D.C., divisions. Agents on investigative assignments may spend much time doing research with the office as base, or they may be out in the field, doing undercover or surveillance work. Protective and investigative assignments can keep a special agent away from home for long periods of time, depending on the situation. Preparations for the president’s visits to cities in the United States generally take no more than a week. However, a large event attracting foreign dignitaries, such as the Asian Pacific Conference in the state of Washington, can take months to plan. Special agents at field offices assigned to investigate crimes are called out regularly to serve temporary protective missions. During presidential campaign years, agents typically serve three-week protective assignments, work three weeks back at their field offices, and then start the process over again. Special agents always work at least 40 hours a week and often work a minimum of 50 hours each week.
One of the drawbacks of being a special agent is the potential danger involved. A special agent was shot in the stomach in 1981 during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Other agents have been killed on the job in helicopter accidents, surveillance assignments, and protective operations, to name a few.
For most agents, however, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For Norm Jarvis, the excitement and profound importance of his work give him great job satisfaction. “There are times when you are involved in world history and you witness history being made, or you are present when historical decisions are being made, and you feel privileged to be a part of making history, albeit you’re behind the scenes and never recognized for it,” he says. However, according to one of Jarvis’s co-workers, the job is not always glamorous and can be “like going out in your backyard in your best suit and standing for three hours.”
Compared to other federal law enforcement agencies, the Secret Service is small. The agency focuses on its protective missions and is not interested in expanding its responsibilities. “We want to be the best at protection, and I think we are the best in the world and that suits us fine,” Norm Jarvis says. As a result, the Secret Service will likely not grow much, unless the president and Congress decide to expand the agency’s duties.
In spite of increased high-alert conditions as a result of terrorist threats, the Secret Service still employs a small number of people, and their new hires each year are limited. Officials anticipate that the job availability could increase slightly over the next few years.