As President George W. Bush finished his jog on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he never expected that day to redefine not only his administration and our nation, but also the elite group of individuals and agency tasked to keep him safe, the agents of the United States Secret Service.
In the aftermath of the attack that took 2,977 individuals lives, including Secret Service Master Special Officer Craig Miller, the United States government needed to address some of the security failures that occurred during the 9/11 attacks. To do so, a whole of government approach was initiated by lawmakers to better coordinate the multitude of law enforcement, national security and intelligence agencies to better coordinate and share information.
The answer was Congress' passage of the Patriot Act, which “removed barriers to information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and mandated exchanges of information relating to terrorist threats. It also mandated changes to the Secret Service, which was followed by the passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2003.
But even before the 9/11 attacks, the Secret Service was starting to modernize the way it did business. The passage of the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000 had made the Secret Service the federal security coordinator of designated events of national significance. It also formally authorized and expanded the National Threat Assessment Center to conduct research and training on threat assessment and various types of targeted violence. It also authorized administrative subpoenas for threat cases and authorized civil forfeiture of computers for counterfeiting offenses.
As this dual mission agency historically tried to balance both its investigative and protective missions, the attacks of 9/11 had an immediate and direct effect on the agency and, specifically, its protective mission. Almost overnight and due in part to the president’s authority to mandate protection on anyone, the Secret Service list of protectees grew from 18 prior to the attacks to 29 protectees by late 2003.
Temporary details were mobilized for President Bush’s extended family, including his grown siblings, and once we went to war in Afghanistan, protective details were added for former Vice President Dick Cheney’s grandchildren in addition to those for his adult daughters, Liz and Mary, a protective umbrella maintained under President Barack Obama’s administration.
This increase in protection was accomplished by modernizing the way the Secret Service performed its protective mission.
Airspace, once considered the territory and control of the Federal Aviation Administration, was now clearly an area of increased concern for any protective mission or as former Secret Service Director Joe Clancy said, “the events of September 11, 2001, resulted in significant enhancements to the way the Secret Service and agencies across government address threats from the air.”
Following the 9/11 attacks and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, an Airspace Security Program was created and aligned under the Presidential Protective Division.
A counter surveillance unit was also formalized in order to detect threats or monitor situations and potentially stop them before they occur. As former Secret Service Director Brian Stafford said, “The high-tech strategy employs state-of-the-art technology in a cost-effective manner to enhance the threat assessment and countermeasure aspects of all protective operations ... utilizing assessment matrices, digital photography and other tools, the counter-surveillance team assesses areas of vulnerability at all venues and motorcade routes from an outside-in perspective.''
One of the critical areas the Patriot Act focused on for the Secret Service was the formal expansion of its cyber capability from its fledgling Electronic Crimes Task Forces. The Secret Service was authorized to establish a nationwide network of electronic crimes task forces, based on the agency's highly successful New York City model. The task force approach developed by the Secret Service generated unprecedented partnerships among federal, state, and local law enforcement, the private sector and academia. These partnerships have experienced remarkable success in detecting and suppressing computer-based crime.
The former director Stafford had gone on to say that the partnering methods and techniques successfully utilized by the task force against cyber-criminals was unprecedented in the law enforcement arena. The Patriot Act established 24 Electronic Crimes Task Forces throughout the United States, which included 299 academic partners; 2,100 federal, state, and local law enforcement partners; and 3,103 private sector partners.
Or as former Secret Service spokesperson Marc Connolly said, "We're not only concerned with what's above us, below us and around us - now we're concerned about the cyberworld as well.”
When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, Stafford, who was at the Secret Service headquarters and in the director’s crisis center, recalled that after he learned about the first crash, he "thought and hoped that it was an accident." But, he said, "When the second one hit, we knew that it wasn't."
As he was directing Secret Service assets, Secret Service personnel with the president in Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York City were all responding in heroic ways. In the attack’s aftermath, though, the job of protecting the president and our nation became more difficult and neither the nation nor Secret Service could risk, as the 9/11 Commission cited, that the attacks occurred in large part due to a failure of imagination.
The Secret Service could not afford to have a failure of imagination and began to modernize prior to and in the wake of the attacks, in a way not seen since the Warren Commission findings to ensure it had the tools and capability to protect both its protectees and our nation.
Donald J. Mihalek is an ABC News contributor, retired senior Secret Service agent and regional field training instructor who served during two presidential transitions. He was also a police officer and in the U.S. Coast Guard.