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The original intent of the US Secret Service had little to do with protection. At first, the agency’s sole intent was to investigate and prevent counterfeiting of US dollars. In 1901, however, President William McKinley was assassinated, and one result of this was assigning Secret Service agents to protect the life and well-being of the subsequent presidents. Since then, protection has been extended to other government officials, some well-known politicians and visiting dignitaries, and former presidents and their families, at least for some period of time.
There are a few people who always receive protection, including the current US president, vice president, and sometimes other high-ranking officials who might succeed the president. For instance, the speaker of the house might, under some circumstances, be entitled to Secret Service protection, especially if a situation arose where the vice president or president were in danger. Wives of the president and vice president, and their children under age 16, are entitled to protection too.
At one time, former presidents received Secret Service protection for life. This changed in 1996, and now former presidents and first ladies are only entitled to this protection for ten years after their service to the country. The protection can continue, however, especially if ordered by the current president. Essentially, the president has the authority to extend protection to anyone or to any event, such as a meeting of high-ranking officials, that might carry potential danger. Also, presidents in office may extend it to all of their children, not just those under the age of 16.
Vice presidents typically do not have Secret Service protection after their term of service is up, unless some threat or danger exists. If the vice president runs for the office of president, however, he or she — and all other major candidates in the primary and general presidential election — are likely to receive protection. Just how soon this is provided may be based in part on the profile of the candidate and any possible early threats, which are not that uncommon, to a candidate’s life.
Another way in which the Secret Service functions is to protect foreign heads of state or visiting dignitaries with high profiles. Visits may be arranged contingent on guarantees of protection, though heads of state may also bring their own version of the Secret Service with them. When a number of foreign dignitaries meet with the president, additional Secret Service agents are usually employed to create the safest environment possible for all concerned.
Some people are allowed to refuse protection if they do not desire it. Though President Clinton has lifetime protection, and is the last president to receive it, unless laws change, he could refuse the services of Secret Service members. Generally, a president or vice president in office cannot refuse protection because of the high security nature of these positions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is entitled to receive Secret Service protection?
By law, the President and Vice President of the United States receive full-time Secret Service protection. This extends to their immediate families as well. Former presidents and their spouses are also entitled to protection for their lifetimes, although they can decline it, as Richard Nixon did in 1985. Children of former presidents receive protection until they are 16 years old. Major presidential and vice-presidential candidates, along with their spouses, typically receive protection within 120 days of a general presidential election.
Can other individuals receive Secret Service protection?
Yes, other individuals can receive Secret Service protection. The Secretary of Homeland Security can authorize temporary protection for individuals such as visiting heads of state or government, designated individuals at special events like summits, and others who may be at risk due to their association with the U.S. government. Additionally, the President can direct the Secret Service to protect other individuals as necessary.
How long do former presidents receive Secret Service protection?
Former presidents receive Secret Service protection for their lifetime. This was reinstated in 2013 when President Barack Obama signed the Former Presidents Protection Act of 2012 into law, reversing a 1994 law that limited post-presidential protection to 10 years. The spouses of former presidents are also covered unless they remarry, and their children receive protection until they reach the age of 16.
Do all family members of the President receive Secret Service protection?
All immediate family members of the President receive Secret Service protection. This includes the President's spouse and their children. However, adult children of the President are not automatically entitled to protection unless they are under 16 years of age or if the President requests extended protection for them. The Secret Service also assesses threats and can provide protection to extended family members if deemed necessary.
Is Secret Service protection available for presidential candidates?
Yes, major presidential and vice-presidential candidates receive Secret Service protection. This is typically provided within 120 days of the general presidential election. The decision to provide protection to a candidate is made by the Secretary of Homeland Security after consultation with a congressional advisory committee. Factors such as prominence in the polls and fundraising ability are considered when determining which candidates receive protection.