Mention the name "Secret Service" and most people think of the earphone-clad men in dark suits protecting America's president.
But the agency does a lot more than just protect the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This week, for instance, the Secret Service is in charge of one of history's most-complex security efforts at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Last weekend it oversaw Super Bowl security. It's also assisting in counterterrorism, helping find missing children, conducting world-class forensics, busting counterfeiters and CD pirates, and other tasks - all with just 3,000 or so agents at its disposal.
Created by Abraham Lincoln just days before he was assassinated, the Secret Service's original mission was tracking down counterfeiters. Over the decades, Congress has charged the agency with carrying out wider criminal investigations, as well as protecting the president, the vice president, their families, visiting heads of state, and important buildings within Washington, D.C.
But, since Sept. 11, demand for the services of this gold-standard in global security has exploded. Now, there are growing concerns that this tiny agency is being spread too thin - and even that the quality of its protection could suffer.
Since Sept. 11, it's been "a big step up" for the Secret Service, says former agent Louis Palumbo. "And this could potentially strain their resources," he says, adding that he figures the agency may have to hire up to 1,000 new agents to meet demand.
Indeed, it's in the midst of hiring 400 new agents and officers this year. And President Bush's 2003 budget gives it a boost of about $150 million - for a total of $1 billion.
"The Service," as its agents call it, carries out top-flight safety measures for the president: This includes everything from embedding radiation sensors in the walls of the West Wing, to having presidential meals cooked at the White House and delivered to a hotel or restaurant he's eating at - to avoid poisoning. Problem is, now there is demand for this type of top-quality security - even at large events.
This week's Olympics are the 13th so-called National Special Security Event (NSSE), a presidential designation that means that the service is automatically in charge. Since Sept. 11 alone, there have been four such high-profile occasions (the State of the Union address, the Super Bowl, the World Economic Forum in New York, and now the Olympics). And still more are expected. Kentucky Derby organizers, for instance, hope this year's race will get the same designation.
"Trying to protect the entire country - that's a fundamental mind shift from trying to protect one guy," says John Pike at Global Security.org. "They're in an all-or-nothing mode," he says, "and that's unsustainable."
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency's director, Brian Stafford, was quoted as saying, "Our people are tired and that's not good."
There are signs of sagging morale. A group of African-American agents is suing the agency for discriminatory promotion practices. And in the past year, four agents have been convicted of stealing money from crime scenes.
But so far the Service has met its own tough standards. At this week's Olympics "all the venues will be as safe as if the president was coming to every one," says Agent Brian Marr, a spokesman.
One key to the Secret Service's success is its agents' legendary diplomatic skills in working with other agencies. "Moving the president is such an enormous 3-ring circus" - requiring close cooperation with the military, White House staff, state, and local police - that they're "the best there is" at "interagency coordination" says Mr. Pike.
Its smooth, quiet approach extends to security techniques, too. In the 1970s, agents guarding presidential son Chip Carter grew long hair to fit in with his friends. And at the Olympics, agents are expected to be skiing and snowmobiling - often in plainclothes.
But this may detract from other duties. In 1994, Congress ordered it to help find missing children by using its world-class forensics lab to identify fingerprints, handwriting on ransom notes, etc. More recently it has been called on to do assessments of school shootings, state capitols, and several airports.
"They certainly have their hands full," says former agent Hamilton Brown, who remembers the 1960s when the agency had 300 agents. Especially recently, he says, its responsibilities "have grown like topsy."