How the Secret Service uses intelligence to drive its operations
“Intelligence drives operations” is a precept by which the U.S. military has operated under for decades. At its core, that statement indicates that intelligence is the essential element that informs the planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, many sought to blame federal agencies — including the Secret Service — for “minimizing intelligence” or “intelligence failures.” That critique shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Secret Service uses intelligence to accomplish its protective mission.
In federal law enforcement, the Secret Service holds a unique place. Although largely known for its protective mission, the agency also continues to perform an investigative mission, part of which it was founded on. On average, the Secret Service alone receives about 2,000 threats per year against the sitting president and additional threats for other protectees. Most of these threats are protectee-focused and not necessarily event- or area-focused. Typically, such threat tips come from other agencies, most notably the FBI.
While the agency does maintain a protective intelligence function focused on obtaining, investigating and mitigating threats that may impact its protectees, it is not an intelligence gatherer like the FBI or CIA. Those agencies and local law enforcement tend to provide most of the intelligence to the Secret Service, which often says it is a “consumer” of intelligence and not a gatherer.
Once the Secret Service receives intelligence, it examines it and determines whether the intelligence is credible, actionable and how it may impact the protective function. Once this examination is made — otherwise called a “threat assessment” — that information is shared across the agency and with personnel working with the protectee or event on which the threat assessment might be focused.
Since protection and the protective mission carry inherent risk, this intelligence is used both strategically and tactically. A strategic review helps guide the agency’s decisions about the shape of its protective methodology, which includes an advance (planning) portion and operational (physical) measures that are implemented to mitigate that risk. The tactical threat assessment is used to inform the breadth and scope of protective countermeasures that might be implemented in order to mitigate or counter the threat. The ultimate goal is to provide as secure an environment as possible for any protectee, so they can do their job.
When first lady Jill Biden recently visited Ukraine, despite it being an active war zone, the Secret Service used protective intelligence to best mitigate threats in that environment, one that was clearly dangerous. This is something the Secret Service has done since its mission began — mitigate threats to ensure that protectees can go into places that often seem as if the person should not be there. This has included presidents in natural disaster zones and war theaters.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, where threat intelligence was a daily occurrence from domestic and foreign sources, the Secret Service faced the difficult task of having to provide a secure environment for all the candidates among an ever-changing pandemic risk, increased civil unrest, and documented and mounting physical and foreign and domestic threats, including those ultimately involving the elections outcome.
During 2020 and into 2021, the FBI argued that it provided ample intelligence and warnings to every federal, state and local law enforcement agency leading up to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. This included a December 2020 contribution to a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report, “which advised our partners the threat posed by the diverse [domestic violent extremism] landscape would probably persist due to enduring grievances,” which would have included partners such as the Secret Service.
After the election, the Secret Service shifted its focus to the events in Washington leading up to President Biden’s inauguration and inaugural security. It would have done so with the prior and continued knowledge from the previous year’s threat information. That threat information would have guided its protective methodology as it prepared its security plan, including performing the advance work for each protectee and implementing physical and cybersecurity enhancements along with emergency operational plans to mitigate and respond to any threats.
If intelligence drives operations, the proof of the Secret Service following that precept was evident during the Capitol riot. No Secret Service areas were breached and every protectee under Secret Service protection was moved to a safe location.
Donald J. Mihalek is retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served on the President’s Detail during two presidential transitions. He also was a police officer and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He is currently executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) Foundation.