The Secret Service: Punish Mistakes But Try to Understand the Mission

By Norman Sherman

I don’t recognize today’s Secret Service—it does not resemble the one I knew in the 1960s when I was press secretary for Vice President Hubert Humphrey. On election night in 1964, there was a moment when an agent appeared next to Humphrey’s table, introduced himself, and stood guard. Other agents were suddenly at the doors. The announcement of victory on television seemed to pale. This was the real thing. These were the guys who would die, if necessary, for the president and the vice president.

During the next four years, Humphrey traveled across the country and overseas to 23 countries with anti-war demonstrations almost constant. Agents, who start low on the Civil Service ladder, sometimes were doused with urine tossed from a crowd. Even when it was just screams, every moment seemed tense. During all of that, day after day, I saw only one agent lose his temper and hit a protestor. He was reprimanded and put on leave, healing on his own vacation time. Several agents ended up hospitalized from exhaustion and one suffered a heart attack.

In the 1970s the head of the Secret Service testified that a physician who dealt with agents said, “The symptoms he observed when examining…agents are the same as those he saw in combat fighter pilots—mental and physical exhaustion brought on by extremely prolonged periods of duty under constant tension.”

During the 1968 presidential campaign I watched the Secret Service at work and admired their professionalism. Walter Mondale, Humphrey’s fellow Minnesotan, was Vice President from 1977 to 1981. He told me, “The Secret Service was the only near-perfect agency I knew.”

Secret Service protection was extended in the 1970s to all major candidates for President and Vice President. The majority and minority leaders in both Houses determine who qualifies and are generous in their judgments. They make the call and the Secretary of Homeland Security follows their decision.

There has been an increase to 3,200 special agents today; the agents are on protective duty or they look for counterfeiters, their original assignment beginning in 1865. There also are 1,300 uniformed officers, most frequently seen at the White House and on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching the families eager to see the White House. It is also their job to lock doors and catch fence-jumpers.

I don’t think the recent foul-ups within the White House would have happened in the 1960s. The presidential detail of agents I knew included only the elite: experienced, dedicated, and brave. Today’s errors belong to both agents and uniformed officers. More than a few ought to be on annual leave.

When bordellos are used for relaxation in foreign countries, those agents ought to fired. But they are the tiny minority in an exceptional group. As we write about and deplore the lapses, we ought to try to understand what a special agent goes though. Not many of us could take it.
A P.S. from Jack Limpert: Here’s the official list of who now gets Secret Service protection. There is wide latitude as to who is protected. An example: One Cabinet member, who lives not far from me in Washington, D.C., seems to have two agents with him at all times. Accompanying him, seemingly around-the-clock, are more agents and two black SUVs. I always think they have the toughest job in the nation’s capital—month after month of being watchful and alert and nothing much happens. And then suddenly what happens in the next few seconds means everything.
By law, the Secret Service is authorized to protect:

The president, the vice president, (or other individuals next in order of succession to the Office of the President), the president-elect and vice president-elect.

The immediate families of the above individuals.

Former presidents, their spouses, except when the spouse re-marries.

Children of former presidents until age 16.

Visiting heads of foreign states or governments and their spouses traveling with them, other distinguished foreign visitors to the United States, and official representatives of the United States performing special missions abroad.

Major presidential and vice presidential candidates, and their spouses within 120 days of a general presidential election

Other individuals as designated per Executive Order of the President and National Special Security Events, when designated as such by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security


  1. Bill Dickinson says

    Your piece on the Secret Service was exceptionally well-put and informative. It had a lot of credibility because of your personal experience with the agents. And you are doubtless correct that the huge increase in the number of agents and guards has probably diminished the service’s standards and conduct. I hope others will pick up your story and pass it on.

  2. Tondalaya gillespie says

    Norman has presented a well-written article about the stresses of being a Secret Service agent. But alas I think the present SS reflects society as a whole…standards being lowered from news to education to even the church. Society has to become better for our institutions to improve. At the same time I applaud those who choose to put their lives on the line.

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