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What do Secret Service Agents do?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The term secret agent is defined as a spy or anyone involved in covert espionage, surveillance or intelligence activities. The term secret service agents specifically refers to those employed in this capacity by the United States (U.S.) Secret Service. No other countries use this term to refer to agents they employ in comparable capacities. Secret service agents normally are involved in one of two activities: They are assigned to protect government officials or foreign diplomats or are instrumental in government investigations that usually involve counterfeiting or other financial crimes. Their jobs may involve domestic or international matters or a combination of the two.

Secret service agents in the field of protection often provide personal security to the U.S. President and Vice President and their immediate families. They may also protect past U.S. Presidents or major candidates for these offices as well as foreign dignitaries and diplomats visiting the United States. They are usually highly visible to the public and are often seen walking or standing next to their assigned person or persons.

Other agents focus on counterfeiting crimes. They work to investigate and prevent the counterfeiting of U.S. currency and bond notes. In fact, when the agency was established in 1865, counterfeit prevention and elimination was its sole purpose. Secret service agents also investigate other financial fraud crimes and identity theft.

To qualify to apply for these positions, candidates must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 36. A minimum of three years of work experience in law enforcement, criminal investigation or a combination of the two specialties normally is required. A bachelor’s degrees, preferably in fields related to law enforcement generally is required as well. Qualifications vary by specific job title.

Becoming a secret service agent is a long process. If the application requirements are met, the next step involves a battery of tests and investigations. These include background checks, government polygraph tests and drug screening, and most positions require an applicant to successfully gain top secret clearance. Applicants must also pass psychological, medical and physical exams. Passing a written exam and undergoing numerous interviews are also part of the qualification process.

If candidates qualify, they must be willing to travel extensively and frequently relocate. The ability to quickly analyze situations and choose smart solutions are important skills. Being able to adapt to a variety of situations and maintain composure in volatile circumstances are highly valued attributes for secret service agents as well.

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Discussion Comments

By strawCake — On Oct 01, 2011

@KaBoom - I think it might actually be a bad thing for a Secret Service agent to be overly nice. I mean, their job is law enforcement and protecting the President. I think if it were me, I'd want more of a "tough guy" type than teddy bear, you know?

I personally don't understand why so many people want this job anyway. I would never take any job that might involve me "taking a bullet" for someone. No thank you! I value my own life too much for that!

By KaBoom — On Oct 01, 2011

I think it's interesting that Secret Service agents have to pass so many psychological tests. When I was growing up, a former Secret Service agent lived down the street from my family.

He was...how do I say this nicely?....He was a huge jerk! I mean, I guess that doesn't mean you aren't psychologically fit for duty as a Secret Service agent. And I suppose being an unpleasant person overall doesn't mean that you can't be professional. But I guess in my young mind I was like "Why would any president want this guy around?"

By MrSmirnov — On Sep 29, 2011

@letshearit - Secret service agents can make a fair bit starting out, though it really depends on your education and whether or not you know any foreign languages. The salary information I was able to find pointed out that the starting salary range is $43,964 to $74,891. That is pretty impressive for an entry job if you ask me.

There are quite a few catches though when it comes to getting into the secret service as an agent. You need to be able to get security clearance, have a good education, be able to relocate easily, among other things. Plus, the competition to get the job is very high.

By letshearit — On Sep 29, 2011

How much money do secret service agents make? Is it a high salary, or comparable to something like a police officer?

I have been researching a lot of different jobs, trying to find something I would be interested in pursuing, and a secret service agent sounds pretty exciting. While I am sure the job isn't what it is made to be on television, I would still love to give it a shot if the money is good.

For myself, I really like the idea of working with foreign diplomats, and perhaps even traveling for work. I imagine being a secret service agent comes with lots of perks.

By jholcomb — On Sep 29, 2011

@ElizaBennett - I liked The West Wing, too. Another nice portrayal of the Secret Service is in the movie Dave, where Kevin Kline played someone hired to impersonate the incapacitated president. He had this discussion with his agent about whether the guy would jump in front of a bullet for him, the impostor.

It was nice to see the agent's respect for him grow. At the end of the impostor's service, the agent says gruffly, "I would have taken a bullet for you." And in the last scene of the movie, you see him volunteering for Dave's city council campaign.

I actually had a real-life brush with the Secret Service. A friend of my brother's was printing counterfeit money on his computer at home. Even though it was more a teenage prank than anything, the Secret Service came to our school and arrested him! He got like thirty days in juvy I think.

By ElizaBennett — On Sep 28, 2011

I always liked the portrayal of the Secret Service on the show The West Wing. (Big POTUS fan - not so much modern-era presidents, but the idea of what's possible). I suppose on that show, the Secret Service failed as bodyguards since first the president was shot and then his daughter was kidnapped, but that's just to create drama.

And not everything was accurate, of course. On the show, the Secret Service agents would sometimes hold umbrellas over the president's head, and I've heard that in real life, they don't do that because of course they need their hands free.

I liked Ron Butterfield, who on the show was the head of the presidential protection detail. It's not that often that a show can keep the same person in a minor role for so long.

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