Confessions of a Secret Service agent

One of America’s oldest federal law enforcement agencies was created in 1865, starting with seven people, in order to halt rampant counterfeiting in the U.S. young financial system. The United States Secret Service (USSS) is a bureau in the Treasury Department. 

“Our primary mission now has become protecting the president of the United States, twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, whenever they go, we go,” agent Steve Gemperle said. “ We make sure that they’re safe.”

The Secret Service was something Gemperle has dreamed about since he was young. Later in his life, he was approached by one of the assistants for former President Bush, and told him he should apply. The application took about 18 months. He started the process in 1997 and was hired in 1999. His job in the department is a special agent and he also has worked  in the cyber security field for the past ten years, as well as a firearm instructor. 

“Everyone in the Secret Service, from the janitor to the director, has to have a top secret security clearance,” Gemperle said. “So you have to go through a pretty extensive background check, because you’re going to be standing next to the president of the United States, with a gun. You end up hearing a lot of things because of your proximity to the president or other cabinet officials.”

Within the department, everyone has to go through a background or Top Secret Clearance check in order to get hired. The SS discovers everything about a person, such as every place they have lived, also including all the good and bad a person has done. Prospective employees also have to pass an extremely hard full scope polygraph examination. 

Many television shows and films have been produced to give the average person an insight into this secretive lifestyle, such as “In the Line of Fire.” But these films stretch the truth of what they actually do. A misconception about their job is that many think the SS is an intelligence agency, like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The SS are not spies. Not only do they protect people, but they also look into financial crimes against the United States, which include counterfeiting, credit card fraud, cyber fraud and cyber forensics.

“The kind of field that I have been in for the last 10 years is the cyber side, and that’s kind of what I’ve specialized in,” Gemperle said. “I will still, if necessary, go out and travel with the President.”

Gempele has protected many people, such as former president George Bush, Stephen Hadley, and the Pope, to name a few. In protecting these high profile people, preparation is needed to make sure they are safe. Events can be planned out two to four weeks ahead of time, depending on notice. If they are planning on going to another country, then they need to plan out where they are going and how much setup time will be needed. 

“[There are] events like the inauguration, where we’ll work on it for months,”  Gemperle said. “They’ve been working on [this year’s] inauguration for eight or nine months.” 

The Secret Service does do some undercover assignments. Within these undercover assignments, women have an easier time blending into a crowd than maybe a grown man that looks like a linebacker for a college team. The SS do not partake in long term assignments because they need to travel so much. They travel in high tech vehicles, which they take everywhere with them. They put the vehicles on a C17, a military cargo plane and fly them wherever around the world they need to go. 

“If we went to go visit a different country, we wouldn’t ride in their cars, we’re going to bring our own vehicles with us,” Gemperle said. “The vehicles are very high tech, but for safety reasons, not for cool gadget reasons.”

Within the agency there are two different groups. One is the uniform division, which is a police position, meaning they drive cop cars. The other is a special agent position, which is Gemperle’s job. A college degree is needed to become a special agent. When training to become part of the Secret Service, the training part is not one for the weak. It is physically and intellectually demanding. This is because trainees not only learn to shoot guns and drive cars, but also have to learn legal ideology and computers.

“You may be really good at computers, but you’ve never shot a gun in your life, or you may come from the military, where you shot guns all the time, but you’ve never touched a computer,” Gemperle said. “I think it’s the varieties [that is] the most difficult thing… of what you have to learn for most people.”

Another side of being a special agent is travelling. Agent Gemperle has travelled to 86 countries, 273 cities, and six continents. In some cases he has gone multiple times to certain cities. 

“For a period, I was traveling to Israel every 10 days for about six months with a national security adviser,” Gemperle said. 

When visiting countries, agents do have the ability to look around and collect souvenirs for family or friends. They are the same as regular tourists by collecting postcards or magnets. Gemperle’s favorite destinations included Estonia, South Africa, Japan and Israel.

“I was in Rome and I only had about four hours of downtime,” Gemperle said. “So I ran a couple miles down because I wanted to see the Colosseum. Got to see the Colosseum, ran back to my hotel, literally ran, changed clothes and went to work.”

During campaigning years, before and during an election, a special agent travels an average of 250 days out of the year. Agents are assigned three weeks off and three weeks on. When traveling, they fly on both commercial and military planes and do keep airline and hotel points. Travelling may sound all fun, but for agents who have a family, they could miss anniversaires, birthdays or school plays. 

“I literally had no idea what city I was in,” Gemperle said. “I would have to look at the phone to see what city I was in, and then I would get up and do another five or six cities the next day. After a while you really have no idea where you are anymore. You just know that you got to eat and go to work and then you sleep and do it again the next day.”

Gemperle talked about how the most interesting part of his job was the element of surprise– for instance, he learned when driving up to work he had to get on a flight to London in two hours. Another thing that Gemperle stated was interesting is being able to go into work every day at the White House. Providing security there is a privilege, agent Germple said. 

“Every once in a while you realize, ‘this is really cool,’” Gemperle said. “I’m walking around the White House.”

The Secret Service has grown from its seven original members in 1865. From 1865 to now, the department has changed in order for them to keep up with the technology, such as the development of phones. If a crime was committed, agents could use the information extrapolated from the phone to determine where suspects were and what they were doing. 

“You know, like I said, 10 years ago when I started, a hard drive on a computer was only 80 gigs,” Gemperle said. “Most hard drives in a computer are now multiple terabytes. A cell phone 10 years ago was about in between 512 meg, to one gig, maybe. Now phones can hold one terabyte of information. Phones have grown exponentially.”

Germperle said the Secret Service is not a job for everyone. But that doesn’t mean he would discourage anyone, including his 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. The organization employs cooks, mechanics, and even professional football players have been hired. When asked about what majors could be helpful for the job, Gemperle answered they need all majors such as lawyers, doctors, journalists and computer programmers.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or girl, or if you’re tall or you’re short,” Gemperle said. “We need a variety of different people.”