Established in 1865 to stanch the flow of counterfeit money circulating at the end of the Civil War, the Secret Service has been entrusted with a dual mission since 1901: to protect U.S. currency and political leaders. Julia Pierson has headed protective operations for the White House and served on security details for Presidents George H. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Now the agency's highest-ranking woman and head of the Office of Human Resources and Training, Pierson lets Smithsonian.com in on a few of the service's secrets.
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How did you get into this line of work?
Initially, I got involved with the Law Enforcement Exploring program, a co-ed division of the Boy Scouts of America. As I became more involved, first at a state and then a national level, I met some Secret Service agents. It was through this exposure to special agents that I thought this might make an interesting career.
When I first joined the Secret Service in 1983, I was right out of college, having spent the last two or three years of my college experience working as a police officer for the city of Orlando, Florida. I knew law enforcement was my area of interest and really had a personal passion toward serving others. I enjoyed being a police officer; I enjoyed the investigations. I also wanted an opportunity to travel and see what the protection side was like.
What's the training or background required?
When you start with the Secret Service, all agents receive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. You learn basic law, constitutional law, investigative techniques, how to effect an arrest, basic firearm tactics. Our second phase is at the James J. Rowley Training Center, in Beltsville, Maryland. Rowley really focuses on counterfeiting and cyber crime and devotes time to the protection duties. In all, it's 27 weeks. About 50 percent of special agents have previous law enforcement experience, but it's not a prerequisite.
In high school, I worked at Disney World. I started off in the parking lot, advanced to watercraft, and I wore one of those character outfits for a while in Americans on Parade. To this day, I think the experience of dealing with large crowds at the park had a good influence on my ability to do that sort of work with the Secret Service.
Describe your average day.
In the field offices, you're doing interviews or meeting with the U.S. Attorney in the morning, and meeting with a victim or criminal in the afternoon. In the evening, you might go to a briefing about a protective visit the next day. Our field agents have the most variety in terms of doing a little bit of everything. It's about 50-50 investigation and protection.
In protective operations [guarding the president, vice president, candidates and their families at the White House or on travel], there are three shifts: day, evening and midnight. The interesting thing about protection is that when you're traveling, the clock is changing, and your shift can get extended. Even just the logistics of trying to get a relief team to you can extend your shift. You're pretty much responsible for the whole duration of the trip.