Secret Service FAQ

Why is the Secret Service barring very tall protesters from George W. Bush’s inaugural?

According to today’s Washington Post, the Secret Service will not allow a group of protesters on stilts to gather near the White House because the stilts could be used as weapons.

Who does the Secret Service protect?

The president, vice president, president-elect, and vice president-elect, and their immediate family members. Also former presidents and their spouses and their children, up to age 16. This means that Bill and Hillary Clinton will continue to get Secret Service protection when Clinton leaves office, but Chelsea will finally be free to go on a date without being chaperoned by an armed agent. The Secret Service also protects major presidential candidates (the secretary of the treasury decides who’s “major”) and visiting foreign leaders. The president can also ask for temporary protection for other people. For example, the Secret Service guarded the pope on his last visit.


What’s all this cost?

This year’s budget authorization for the Secret Service is $832 million, up from $691 million last year, but protection is only one of the agency’s assignments. The Secret Service, a division of the Treasury Department, also investigates financial fraud such as counterfeiting–its original mission when it was founded in 1865. More is spent on protection than fraud investigations, but the Secret Service does not reveal the actual breakdown.

Could Laura Bush decide she doesn’t want protection when she becomes first lady, or could Hillary Clinton decline continued protection when she becomes former first lady?

Yes. Only the president, vice president, and the president-elect and vice president-elect have no say over whether they get protection. By law, everyone else can waive theirs, or in the parlance, “sign off.” The Secret Service would not comment on whether anyone ever has. (Explainer is betting few people want to give up having good-looking armed guards drive you to the hairdresser.)


[Addendum, Jan. 11: As several alert readers pointed out, in 1985 Richard Nixon dropped his Secret Service protection, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money. The previous year he had dropped Pat’s, who apparently made it back and forth from the hairdresser’s on her own without incident.]


How will George W. Bush’s post-presidential protection differ from that of his father’s?

George Herbert Walker gets lifetime protection. George W. will only get protection for the 10 years following his presidency. A law passed in 1997 limits protection of presidents elected after that year to a decade after leaving office. Bill Clinton is the last president with lifetime protection. And pity the poor spouse. It used to be that the president could die, or the wife could even divorce him, and she kept the protection for life. (The plot of the Shirley McClaine-Nicolas Cage movie, Guarding Tess, is that a demanding presidential widow tries to get an agent she likes permanently assigned to her.) Only if she remarried (the “Ari Onassis clause”) did the Secret Service abandon her. But the new law is going to cut the spouse loose when the president dies or in the case of a divorce. So Hillary Clinton is the last first lady who could dump her husband and keep her Secret Service protection.


Does the Secret Service accept financial donations?

Yes. The agency accepts contributions to offset the cost of protecting presidents, and their spouses, while they are cashing in on the presidency by making paid speeches. To further this worthy cause, please send money (noncounterfeit only) to Explainer, who will make sure it gets in the appropriate pockets.


Don’t other high government officials have bodyguards?

Yes. The State Department has its own protective division, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. It guards the secretary of state and the ambassador to the United Nations. It also provides security for visiting high-level foreign dignitaries and coordinates security worldwide for United States diplomatic personnel. Recently, the State Department requested congressional funds to continue protecting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for six months after she leaves office.


Although only the Secret Service and State are specifically authorized to protect members of the executive branch, having your own security cadre has been an increasing perk for top federal employees. A General Accounting Office report found that between 1997 and 1999, 27 different executive branch agencies provided protection for 42 officials at a cost of $74 million. The number of people providing protection increased 73 percent in those two years.

Do Secret Service agents wear uniforms?

Not exactly. “Special agents,” the ones directly responsible for the protection of the president, vice president, etc., wear civilian clothes. There is another division of the agency, the “uniformed division officers,” who wear–you guessed it–uniforms. They act more as a kind of police force, patrolling grounds of federal buildings and foreign diplomatic missions in Washington as well as providing personal protection for the president, vice president, etc.

If Bill Clinton is convicted of perjury and sent to jail, will Secret Service agents have to go with him?

Explainer decided that since the nice Secret Service agent she was talking to was armed and increasingly annoyed with her, it was better not to ask this question.

Additional update:Many people wanted to know: Does the vice president also receive lifetime protection upon leaving office?

No! He’s the vice president. Who cares? He can take a cab to the hairdresser.