The Secret Service Opens its Doors and Provides a Glimpse at the Agency, as Well as the Selection Process that Eliminates 999 out of 1,000 Candidates


You’re about to walk through a door you never imagined would open.

In your mind, this barrier has always been 10 feet high, solid steel, impenetrable, impossible to access and forever guarding the secrets within. Until now.

Today, that door has swung open, and you’re about to go inside the Secret Service—the federal agency responsible for safeguarding the president of the United States, other national leaders and visiting foreign dignitaries, as well as helping secure the nation’s financial infrastructure through financial and cybercrime investigations.

Your journey will take you inside its multi-story headquarters and then to its 500-acre facility to get a look at the training so brutal that only one in 1,000 makes the cut.

For 150 years, the Secret Service has been diligently going about its business. For most of us, our only exposure to this elite law enforcement agency is through television. We get a fleeting glimpse at one of its intense, focused agents—clad in a suit—while protecting a dignitary.

Today, you will see much more.


We extend a special thanks to agents Kevin, Martin and Russ, all of whom graciously devoted two days out of their schedule so they could show us around their federal agency.

Now, enter their world.

FP: You allowed us to watch a special event … the graduation of a new set of agents. Talk about your emotions during the graduation ceremony.

Martin: It was great. As part of our profession, we are the people who really should not be seen. We are there to play a supporting role for those we protect—and the president, in particular—as they are doing the business of our nation.

It’s wonderful to be part of these experiences. We are not the show. We are the supporting cast, and we are supposed to blend into the background. It’s humbling to see other people chose this profession. They will stand in the background and serve their country, so it’s good to see new agents, who have those morals and that work ethic, come on board.

FP: Talk about this enormous training facility and why it’s so critical to the agency’s success.

Martin: Originally named the Beltsville Training Center, [it was renamed the James J. Rowley Training Center (JJRTC)] in 1983 in honor of a former Secret Service director whose career spanned from 1938 to 1973.

The unit comprises almost 500 acres of land, 6 miles of roadway and 31 buildings. The protective, investigative, specialized tactical and executive/managerial training conducted at JJRTC is unique among federal law enforcement instructional entities.

The Secret Service provides a wide variety of courses utilized by its personnel throughout their careers. The core curriculum provided by JJRTC is designed for special agents, Uniformed Division officers, special officers and physical security specialists.

In a single year, hundreds of training recruits undergo extensive training in firearms marksmanship, use-of-force/control tactics, emergency medical techniques, financial crimes detection, physical/site/event protection and water survival training.

FP: How does the training transfer to real-life scenarios?

Martin: Let’s use the riot training as one example. [After an agent goes through this], he at least has some experience of flashing lights and paying attention to the objective. When the agent gets to the real world and it’s real flashing lights and a real angry mob, the guy at least has been there before. It may not be at that intensity level, but at least he has been there. There’s a comfort there. He can build off that and perform off that. If he is going to make mistakes, he should make them here.

FP: And the dunk tank?

Sean: The pool is almost Olympic size, and the cage is meant to represent a helicopter. After as much as three hours of rigorous training, the agent then puts on all his gear and climbs into the cage. We then lower him into the water, where the cage turns upside down. While underwater, he has to find the latch, open the door and swim to safety. We spend a lot of time in helicopters, so this training prepares agents for a crash in the water.

FP: To succeed in that training, it takes tremendous physical ability and composure. What else do you look for in an agent?

Martin: They [military and law enforcement] are the esprit de corps in those professions. These are people who want to work as a team. You’ll find [that with] everything we do, most guys are moving in pairs of two. It’s all about a team mission, whether it’s criminal work or protective work.

That’s what we want … people who work well in a team. If I’m going to be away from my family, I want people who see the job the same way I do. I want someone who has the same work ethic I have. If you have to skip lunch or a few meals or go days on end without being able to change your clothes because you’re traveling on a military flight from one point to another, at least you’re with people who see the job the same way you do. They will support me, and I will support them.

FP: What characteristics should an agent have?

Martin: Honesty, integrity, commitment, a good work ethic. This job is not easy. Forty hours per week is the starting point. Someone has to keep the president safe on Christmas Day and during Thanksgiving dinner. Someone has to keep the president safe when it’s your kid’s first birthday, and a lot of times, it’s you.

We have people who will say, “Hey, Marty, I got it for you.” When that happens, I am going to take care of him [when he needs time off]. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for that work ethic and commitment to the mission, a commitment to the team.

It’s a 24/7 job. The president has been with the Secret Service protection since 1901. It has not stopped once. It has been every minute of every day since that time.

FP: During one of our casual conversations, you said the personnel perform their jobs brilliantly. How do they reach that level?

Martin: It’s important for them to believe the mission is real. It’s as simple as that. On the leadership side of this agency, we have to constantly enforce to our people that the threat is real. They show up at work day in and day out, and nothing happens. It gets to be the same, old routine. Or maybe there are some bureaucratic things typical with any organization that might distract the agent.

Therefore, we have to constantly enforce that the mission is real and that something can happen at any second. There’s no advance warning. It’s gunfire. It happens that fast.

If we’re not in that mindset and our people do not believe it’s real, obviously they are not going to perform brilliantly. It’s our leadership that does that. The troops will march to the beat of their leaders’ drums. If our leaders are not beating the drum, we have to fix that or replace them. I think the agency does a good job in that.

FP: You said that only one in 1,000 who try out for the agency actually makes it. Why is the success rate so low?

Martin: It’s a mission tied to national security. We protect the president, and we protect the executive branch of the United States government. Now, we are in a campaign year. Article II provides for the executive branch of government. These men and women cannot go out and campaign for the highest office in the land if they do not feel safe. It’s a national security mission.

If the president were to get hurt, God forbid, or worse, what would happen to this country? Our stock markets? What questions would arise about how safe our readiness is to defend the country? What questions would the American people have?

I was not around when President Kennedy was assassinated, but people who were said those are the types of questions people asked. So, we are working to prevent that. We want the American people to feel secure in their own country, have confidence in the strength of our country. It’s a national security mission, so it’s going to take one in 1,000 to find the right people.

FP: What makes an agent great?

Martin: A great agent is [actually] the family and friends behind him. It’s the people who support us. I come to work every day, and I can do what I need to do and be focused. Whether I am traveling to a foreign county or domestically or I am working late hours, I can still have a healthy and enjoyable family life. I think that is what it is. It’s people who are supported by family and friends.

FP: Based on what we’ve seen in the course of two days, it is obvious that these agents are special people.

Martin: Our best recruiting tool is our own people. You asked Peter how many hours he put in, and he said it starts at 40 and goes up. That is the commitment we need.

We all have family events we need to get to, and there are things you have to do in your personal life. However, if the mission needs to get done, you can’t say, “Well my train leaves at 5; I have to go.” You might not get home until 8 or 9 at night, but you’ve got to get the mission done. That is what we are looking for. When you’re out there interacting with people, you’ll see when this guy is a good fit for what we’re doing.

FP: We watched the handgun qualification test. You guys are competitive.

Martin: When I was in FLETC [Federal Law Enforcement Training Center], I was sitting in a car with my good buddy, Tom Lynch, with whom I started the job. Earlier in our careers, we went out to a driving pad and had to navigate an obstacle course behind the wheel of a car. The instructor said to us, “I always love Secret Service agents, because when I put them behind the wheel, they always ask, ‘What is the best time?’” That tells the story.

I want to be competitive. I’m not going to just drive. Hopefully, Kevin and I just gave you a little taste of that. Kevin outshot me, and that will bother me for a couple weeks until we shoot again. I am happy Kevin beat me, but I am looking forward to the next shoot, because competition-wise, I want to win.

That’s what it is all about here. It’s not for the sake of tearing anyone down. It’s for the sake of getting the best. It’s like when you go to a weight room. If you have a buddy supporting you and encouraging you to do one more set … “I’ve got ya.” That is part of our culture here.

That is also what we look for in training. We’re looking for the guy who can do 1.5 miles in 9.5 minutes. Just burning. Instead of sucking wind with his hands on his knees, he will turn around and go back and get the slowest guy. Those are the people we are looking for, and the slowest guy says, “I have to pick my game up. My team is counting on me.”

That works well. The military seems to find a lot of folks like that, as does law enforcement. It’s all that team environment.

FP: Regardless of the profession, everyone wants to do his job right. However, the Secret Service has a lot more at stake, because we’re potentially talking life or death for the protectee—which could be the president, as well as the agent. What kind of pressure does that create?

Martin: If you’re part of the advanced team, it is like studying for an exam. You have to be ready for anything that comes up. Being an agent is almost like being a chess master. We have to think five steps ahead. If someone is only thinking one or two steps ahead, I have a young son at home who can beat you in chess every day. So, we have to think five or six steps ahead and think, “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”

Basically, you’re getting prepared for a huge “examination.” Everyone wants to do the best possible job, because it will reflect on you and the rest of your teammates. The pressure is, in a large part, self-induced to make sure you do the best you can; and that is very important.

In the training, we try to put as much pressure as we can on the agents in a controlled environment. When we send them out the front gate, they are prepared. In the mentor program, they are assigned to a senior agent. In the Uniformed Division, it would be a sergeant who takes them under their wing to show them how it is done.

Afterward, everyone may say you did a fantastic job, but you know there are things you may have done differently or better. You know you have made it when you’re your own best critic.

FP: How do the agents stay at such a high level of awareness for so long?

Martin: We are smart about it. Let’s take our officers at the White House. They will rotate through a variety of different posts.

On one hand, you want to know how things work, what is the foot traffic, who are the players in a particular area on a particular post. By the same token, you want that variety. You want new people coming in looking at things from a different angle each time, working it a little differently. We are also giving our adversaries a different look.

Plus, I’m not there all eight hours. I’m there for a reasonable amount of time, and that is depending on the circumstances.

When we are in a foreign country, we may not have as much manpower as we want, so maybe we’re on post a little longer, but we’re supplemented by foreign security on outer perimeters.

We are big on making sure we refresh our people while they are at the job. There are a lot of good people who can share those responsibilities.

FP: Years down the road. You look back on your career in the Secret Service. What will come to mind?

Martin: For me, my greatest gifts are the people and the friendships I have. At the graduation today was a buddy of mine who retired four years ago. We [still] talk about twice a week. The relationships go beyond just work. We are all cut from the same cloth.

United States Secret Service Moments in History: Multi-State Counterfeiting Scheme

In January 1973, the Secret Service confiscated what was then the largest single seizure of counterfeit notes in the history of the agency.

Events leading to the seizure began when seven conspirators first formulated plans and leased printing equipment from several so-called “supply houses” in Florida. The suspects installed the equipment in a residence in North Carolina and placed an order for high-grade paper with a paper supply house.

The Secret Service became aware and initiated an investigation. Although one of the suspects was identified and arrested, efforts to locate his partner were unsuccessful.

A month later, the Secret Service’s Nashville office received a report of a suspicious purchase of top-quality paper. The license plate on the car used was registered to the same individual making the North Carolina purchase.

Several days later, agents in Cincinnati received information indicating that the fugitive and another man had been questioned by local police and released following the passing of a single counterfeit note. Law enforcement in Minnesota apprehended one of the principals 10 days later.

Agents found a telephone number in his possession and traced it to a residence near Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they observed the vehicle used in the North Carolina supply house purchase.

Agents obtained search and arrest warrants and raided the premises on January 4, 1973. Five suspects were arrested at the plant site, and a sixth was arrested in Florida.

It took agents three days to sort and count the bogus notes. Of the $6.2 million in counterfeit bills produced by the group, the investigation revealed that only $160 has been passed on to the public.

Secret Service Milestones

The Secret Service Division was formed on July 5, 1865, as part of the Department of the Treasury.

Secret Service responsibilities broadened to include “detecting persons perpetrating frauds against the government.” This appropriation resulted in investigations into the Ku Klux Klan, nonconforming distillers, smugglers, mail robbers, land frauds and a number of other infractions against federal laws.

The first Secret Service commission book was issued.

The badge was adopted.

The Secret Service began informal part-time protection of President Grover Cleveland.

As a result of the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress requested Secret Service protection for U.S. presidents.

The Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for protection of the president. At this time, only two men were assigned full-time responsibility to the White House detail.

Congress authorized protection for the president’s immediate family.

The White House Police Force (the present-day Uniformed Division) was created at the request of President Warren G. Harding.

Secret Service “operatives” were now referred to as “agents.”

Private Leslie Coffelt, White House Police Force, was shot and killed by two Puerto Rican nationals while protecting President Harry Truman at the Blair House on November 1.

Triggered by the attack on President Truman, Congress enacted legislation that permanently authorized Secret Service protection of the president, his immediate family, the president-elect and the vice president (if he wished).

The first formal Special Agent Training School was held. The three-week course covered investigative and protective responsibilities of agents in the 1950s.

Congress expanded coverage to include the vice president (or the next officer to succeed the president) without requiring his request for protection, the vice president-elect and, at his request, the former president for a reasonable amount of time (approximately six months).

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22.

Later, Congress passed legislation for the protection of Mrs. John F. Kennedy and her two minor children for two years.

Congress authorized Secret Service protection for visiting heads of a foreign state or government or other officials, as directed by the president.

On December 15, Laurie Anderson, Sue Allen Baker, Kathryn Clark, Holly Hufschmidt and Phyllis Shantz were sworn in as the first female special agents.

Assassination attempts were made on President Gerald Ford in Sacramento, California, on September 5 and again on September 22 in San Francisco.

On March 30, an assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C.

On April 19, a bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building, which contained the Oklahoma City field office. Six Secret Service personnel were among the 168 killed.

Amid the terrorist attacks on September 11, the Secret Service’s Craig J. Miller was one of the more than 2,800 people who were killed. At the time, the Secret Service’s New York field office was housed in Building 7 of the World Trade Center, which collapsed as a result of the attacks in New York.

On March 1, the Secret Service was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the new Department of Homeland Security.

Recognized for its central role in the protection of both the nation’s leaders and the financial and critical infrastructure of the United States, the Secret Service contributes to the Department of Homeland Security’s common mission of protecting the American people from harm.

Barbara Riggs, a veteran agent of the Secret Service, became the first woman in the agency’s history to be named deputy director.

The 56th presidential inauguration was the largest and most complex event ever overseen by the Secret Service. In all, five separate national special security events came under the umbrella of President Barack Obama, and the Secret Service oversaw the design and implementation of the security plan for each of them.

The former president’s Protection Act of 2012 reverses a previous law that limited Secret Service protection for former presidents and their families to 10 years if they served after 1997. President George W. Bush and future former presidents will receive protection for the rest of their lives.

Children (up to the age of 16) of former presidents are assured protection under the new law.

On March 27, Julia A. Pierson was sworn in as the 23rd director of the United States Secret Service. Pierson is the first female director of the agency.

On February 18, Joseph P. Clancy was appointed by President Barack Obama as the 24th director of the United States Secret Service.

By the Numbers

As of 2008, the number of years the Secret Service had been under the Department of Homeland Security.

In those five years, this is the total of criminal arrests for counterfeiting, cyber investigations and other financial crimes.

Of those arrests, this is the percentage of the number of convictions.

In millions, this is the amount of counterfeit money that was seized in those arrests.

The Secret Service investigated and closed financial crimes cases in which actual loss amounted to this amount (billions) and prevented a potential loss of more than $12 billion more.

The 56th presidential inauguration was the largest and most complex event ever overseen by the Secret Service. In all, five separate national special security events came under the umbrella of President Barack Obama, and the Secret Service oversaw the design and implementation of the security plan for each of them.

Working in cooperation with its local, state, federal security, public safety and military partners, the agency ensured the safety for each event and protectee, as well as nearly two million people who were estimated to have attended the events.

The former president’s Protection Act of 2012 reverses a previous law that limited Secret Service protection for former presidents and their families to 10 years if they served after 1997. President George W. Bush and future former presidents will receive protection for the rest of their lives.

Children (up to the age of 16) of former presidents are assured protection under the new law.

On March 27, Julia A. Pierson was sworn in as the 23rd director of the United States Secret Service. Pierson is the first female director of the agency.

On February 18, Joseph P. Clancy was appointed by President Barack Obama as the 24th director of the United States Secret Service.

Behind the Scenes With a Sniper The Counter Sniper Unit


Stephen is an officer technician with the Counter Sniper Unit. The 35-year-old father of three has a background in criminal justice from DeSalles University. At home, he has three young children. At work, he is living a dream. —Editor

I was in a law school-type track when I went to a job fair, which is where I got interested in law enforcement. I did not want to be a local cop, because a small-town-cop type did not appeal to me, so I went to the federal level. I have been with the Secret Service for several years.

The Counter Sniper Unit provides 360-degree long-range coverage to a protectee. We work on the basis of providing precision fire and general overwatch of an area and get tasked with many things … from light tactics to in-depth building security or just protectee type of things. The papal visit was a good example of that. We had a large geographical area with many teams and multiple tactical units, as opposed to a site that is smaller, such as one small presidential venue.

In our unit, there really is no such thing as a “typical” day. We may have a long posting or a short posting. We could have other things behind the scenes for which we are getting ready. We could be gearing up for a trip, training, qualifying or shooting.


When we first bring someone into our unit, we teach them the job, the role, the responsibility. So much of what we do is observation based and it’s also situational, like any law enforcement officer, so [that’s part of the training].

For shooting, it’s getting to that comfortable level, that standard that enables us to apply that precision shot. That’s the basis for the training … getting them comfortable and getting consistency. We build on that by placing them into different situations with situation-based training that makes them better thinkers.

There are a number of ways to get them to be better thinkers. We put them in situations we want them to be comfortable with, we do a lot of chalk talks and we look at recent events and study our history like everybody does. We try to learn from our history and the different situations we have been in before so we can determine what is typical and what is not typical and then how to move forward from there.


We give them a good background and basis and then, we test that basis by putting them in different training situations. That way, they can make good, informed decisions.

We have to be ready to deliver a shot wherever it may come from within our protected zone. To make them better and quicker shooters, we constantly push the men to do time and speed tactical drills to deliver a shot.

While I cannot talk about those training specifics, I can say that we do drills to cut down their time dramatically. There’s a lot going on to deliver a long-range shot like that, and we simply make it faster.

Again, I cannot discuss specifics, but the setup, mindset, angles and what goes into locations are all factors taken into consideration [for shooting], and we have standard operating procedures in consideration that account for that.


When we do an advance, the time required varies on the size and scope of the detail. As an example, let’s take a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a tornado. For that, it could be a short time frame. On the long side, it could be a year or longer, depending on how far out we know about an event. We know the Nuclear Summit is coming, so we plan as far as we know about it.


As a whole, law enforcement is under plenty of scrutiny these days. Any LEO has to be correct 100 percent of the time and be prepared to answer for that, if not.

In the Secret Service, the training prepares the agents for the job. There’s FLEXI, basic Secret Service training, as well as additional training such as CAT, ERT and the Sniper Team. Plus, time, education and experience on the job prepare one and builds one up for that scrutiny. As a whole, the Secret Service does a good job of preparing agents for that.

There is a probationary period, and personnel are constantly being re-evaluated for their skill sets and constantly tested and trained throughout their progression. And we build upon that.

Overall, in the long term, people tend to want to do a good job and believe in the mission. That is the type of person we recruited. We take those people, pull them in and take that passion and harness it for a specific area of long-range protection.

The Counter Assault Team

Peter is a special agent with the Counter Assault Team. The 37-year-old D.C. resident has a degree in psychology. Peter has two young children, and he has been with the agency for 10 years.

FP: Tell us about the Counter Assault Team.

Peter: We divert, suppress and neutralize an assault or an attack on a protectee to allow the working shift time to evacuate the protectee.

FP: How well does physical conditioning translate to the job?

Peter: It is very important. The more fit you are, the better you are [able] to handle the stress. Everyone works out, and everyone is strong. It’s an integral part of our training. If an attack does occur, we’d be carrying buddies out, carrying staff out, the protectee. We might be running up flights of stairs. Strength and conditioning are of the utmost importance.

FP: Talk about the bond that develops between the team members.

Peter: We become very close. We always travel together—for the most part, with our specific team—and so it’s a very close bond.

FP: What is the most challenging aspect of the job?

Peter: The balance between work and life is the most challenging aspect of the job. It is also important to have a good support network at home, which my wife is.

FP: What are your hours?

Peter: Forty is the minimum, and it goes up from there. The 10 years I have been here have been great. I have done diverse things.

FP: What is the last trip you took?

Peter: In January, I took a foreign trip to Istanbul, Turkey. That was for Vice President Joe Biden’s trip. We set up a tactical plan for his trip, as well as for the second lady, and the trip lasted a couple of weeks.

FP: Your unit, like the others, features extraordinary people.

Peter: One of the great things about the service and CAT is that we look for free thinkers and self-motivated people. We don’t need someone to whom we have to say, “We need you to do this.” We need people who think ahead of time. In those advances, the guys do that. They are always evolving, which is great. It’s a thinking man’s game.

FP: Describe the awareness that you guys must have.

Peter: When working, we are always “on” because an attack can come at any time. It can be challenging to stay at that level, but working out relieves that stress.

Just because a physical attack did not occur does not mean we were not probed. We may have defeated it [an attack] just by our presence there. They may have said, “This is too hard today to attack, so maybe we’ll try another day.” Keeping that in the back of my mind helps me stay at that level.

FP: What is the most gratifying aspect of the job?

Peter: I am doing what I always wanted to do, and I’m doing it with the guys I enjoy spending time with … the best guys in the service.

FP: What makes them the best?

Peter: Their mindset. They are the free thinkers, the go-getters. They are looking for an additional challenge. Those who are here want to be here, and they put in the extra effort to get here.

From 40 to 80

“We’re going to put you in one of the cars so you get a feel for evasive driving.”

I laughed nervously and glanced over at the track. Sitting quietly in the midst of a pine forest, the track seemed harmless enough. But I hadn’t given up semi-fast cars and roller coasters for nothing. I’m not good with speed or sharp turns.

“You might want to chew some gum before you jump in the car,” Kevin suggested.

If gum would prevent me from throwing up, I was willing to try it. A search for gum turned up empty, but I gladly accepted some Tic Tacs.

“I’ll go easy,” the driver said as I climbed in.

That sounded really good, because these days, I don’t like to drive much faster than 65 on the freeway. I couldn’t believe I was about to get in a car and hit 80—on a curved track.

I pulled the door closed nice and tight and yanked on my seat belt. Before I could think, my head was thrown back, and we were screaming down the track at 80.

We approached the end of the track, the driver slowed and immediately began weaving in and out of the cones as the tires screeched through the winter air. I glanced over at the driver, who was pulling all these maneuvers off with one hand.

“One hand?”

He just smiled and roared through the track, including one maneuver that still has my head spinning. While driving backward, he slammed on the brakes and cranked on the wheel as we did a 180 … or more. (I’m still not sure.)

In a second, the speedometer was on 80 again as we roared toward the waiting agents.

The President’s Detail

“Mr. President. We have reports of an active shooter on the premises. We’re going to get you out of here.”

“OK,” I said to the agent.

As the rooms ahead were cleared, several agents stayed with me. When we got the go-ahead, we moved swiftly to the next room and waited for the agents to again clear the next room. Finally, we worked our way to the car.

“We’ll move as fast as you, Mr. President.”

I walked swiftly to the limousine, completely caught up in the atmosphere of the drill, ducked my head when the door opened and threw myself in.

“This is when I’d throw my body on top of you, but I don’t think you want 265 pounds on top of you,” an agent said as the limousine sped away from the danger.

Coming around a curve, we approached a small tactical village that has an overpass at the far end. Some people were milling around on the overhead road. As I glanced out the side window, my attention was quickly brought back to the road in front of us as an RPG rocked our world.

A firefight ensued as the driver sped off to Air Force One, where I was escorted up the stairs and into the plane.


This story ran in a 2016 issue of Firepower magazine.