The agency was founded in 1865 because of widespread counterfeiting. It was named the Secret Service Division of the Treasury Department. Its name was later changed to the United States Secret Service, it now has the additional duty of protecting American officials, and it’s now part of the Department of Homeland Security.
But what was ever secret about it? Counterfeiting was a generally recognized crime. Secret Service agents weren’t concealing their job, their activities, or their identities.
Look at the other federal law enforcement agencies which existed in 1865: the United States Customs Service, the United States Park Police, the United States Marshals Service - all of their names are prosaic descriptions of their function.
The secret service was named after … the secret service. That is, the organization now known as the Secret Service was named after an earlier and different government organization. From memory, the earlier organization was short lived, had less oversight, and was, more or less, secret, and the idea of it’s name came from secret services in other countries. There was some consideration given to the name for the new department, but in the end it was easier to use an existing name rather than to invent a new one.
“Secret service” wasn’t orginally an organisation; it was an activity. It meant, basically, confidential government activities that the legislature is asked to to fund without the usual level of scrutiny/enquiry. The budget would include an annual allocation of funds “for secret service”; this goes back to at least the 18th century in the UK. “Secret” meant “confidential, private” and referred not to the agencies performing the services but to the nature of the services themselves. It was generally understood that the secret service vote was mostly used for paying rewards to informers, and bribes to foreign officials. The vote didn’t cover the salaries, offices, overheads etc of the staff engagaged in this work; all that was covered in the usual way out money voted for the agencies to which they belonged.
The US copied the British in this; in 1790 Washington asked Congress to vote funds to finance intelligence operations, and Congress responded by establishing the Contingency Fund for Foreign Intercourse, which I think was loosely referred to as the Secret Service Fund pretty much from the beginning. It was huge; by the mid-1790s over a million dollars a year, which was more than a tenth of the entire federal budget, and it was spent at the discretion of the President and without congressional oversight, mostly (it’s thought) in intelligence-gathering, and in covert operations against foreign governments. It’s the lack of parliamentary/congressional oversight over how the money is spent that is the “secret” part of secret service.
As a related question: Does the USSS have any other duties other than counterfeiting and protection? What % of the agents are doing counterfeiting? If, for example, the president goes to Houston, do the counterfeiting agents in Houston change duties for a few days or do all the “protection” agents go to Houston ahead of POTUS?
The Secret Service investigates and aims to prevent a whole range of financial crimes, including wire fraud and money laundering.
I don’t know the breakdown between agents investigating financial crimes and the people on the protective duties but, from what I understand, pretty much all agents do both over the course of a few years at the agency. They are all trained to investigate financial crimes and to work on protective details. They will either be assigned primarily to protective details or to financial crimes for a while but, when the need for protective services increases (like during Presidential elections), many people who are ordinarily assigned to financial crimes are moved at least temporarily to protective details.
Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
We do, we do
Who keeps Atlantis off the maps?
Who keeps the Martians under wraps?
We do, we do
Who holds back the elctric car?
Who makes Steve Gutenberg a star?
We do, we do
Who robs gamefish of their site?
Who rigs every Oscar night?
We do, we do
I have a good friend that is an agent with the Secret Service. He originally started with US Border Protection and then transferred to the Secret Service. He was originally assigned to Cheney’s protection detail, then W’s, and then Obama’s. By the end of Obama’s first term, he and his wife had three children, and he wanted to travel less, so he requested a transfer out of DC to the Boston office as a field agent. He primarily does financial investigations, but is involved with protection details from time to time.