Modernizing the Secret Service’s information technology systems

April 10, 2012

For the U.S. Secret Service to carry out its dual missions of protecting the president of the United States and investigating counterfeiting and fraud, the agency must track and analyze an enormous amount of information and be able to react at a moment’s notice.

Julia Pierson, the highest-ranking female agent at the agency, is making sure that the technology systems used to gather and evaluate critical information, coordinate special agent assignments and prepare for presidential events and travel are modernized so that the agency can do its best work.

“The Secret Service supported about 6,000 protected visits last year for the president or former presidents,” said Pierson, chief of staff to the agency director. She said the agency also screened more than a million people through magnetometers, and arrested more than 9,000 individuals for counterfeiting and financial crimes.

“As an organization, we stay very busy,” she said. “Our information technology networks need to be as robust as possible.”

To improve its technological capabilities, the agency will spend an estimated $250 million during the next five years to bring networks, communications and applications into the 21st century. The modernization will give the Secret Service the ability to look at its data more comprehensively and carry out its responsibilities more efficiently, Pierson said.


(U.S. Secret Service)

Pierson is the right person for the job, said Paul Morrissey, assistant director, Office of Government and Public Affairs.

“She brings a wealth of operational and managerial experience as chief of staff,” he said. In the past, she has held executive positions at the agency overseeing administration, budgeting, protective operations and procurement.

“She’s hit every position on the way up to the chief of staff, in four of the eight directorates, which is absolutely amazing,” Morrissey said.

Those assignments have provided Pierson with the unique opportunity to understand the systems supporting the mission, and she knows the technology update is sorely needed.

Currently, if the president travels to New Hampshire, the agency brings agents from New York, Boston and New Jersey to bolster protective capabilities. But to plan and schedule the event,

Pierson must work through three disparate systems to find and assign special agents, officers and the specialists who do explosive detection and chemical and biological work.

“Imagine doing that 6,000 times a year with three systems,” Pierson said.

Under the technology upgrade, the agency will integrate its three data systems so the Secret Service can have a better view of all the resources available for each assignment and can identify operational trends and forecast future mission requirements.

“It’s about sharing information and getting it out to the appropriate agents so they can do their job in a sufficient manner,” said Morrissey.

Agents chosen for assignments need security and logistics skills and language ability when in non-English speaking countries. Specialists travel in advance to replicate the security the president has at the White House complex.

“I don’t think people realize the amount of preparation that goes into a presidential visit, everything from where the president is going to physically arrive, whether by airplane or limousine, to the actual event site,” Pierson said.

“We need to know where he’ll walk, where he’ll wait, where he’ll speak from and all have to be evaluated by the Secret Service to secure his safety,” she said.

While the protective arm of the Secret Service is well known, the agency originally was created to do investigative work. It was founded in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln to combat rampant currency counterfeiting. It wasn’t until after 1901, in the wake of President William McKinley’s assassination, that the Secret Service was directed to take on the job of protecting the president.

The crime-fighting work remains an important part of the mission and the agency continues to fight counterfeiting and other financial crimes, much of it done via computer.

In the old days, criminals could only rob bricks-and-mortar banks and might forge a check with a pen, Pierson said. Now, someone who steals an individual’s personal information could take over the victim’s bank account in cyberspace.

“That would be devastating to the person as well as the banking industry, for people to lose confidence in using the Internet for banking activities,” she said.

Pierson joined the Secret Service out of college after working as a police officer in Orlando while still a student. She first got interested in her career while in high school after joining a co-ed program of the Boy Scouts called the Law Enforcement Exploring program.

She particularly enjoyed her time as a special agent, when each day was different from the one before.

“Assignments are often diverse and spontaneous,” she said. “If you’re in a field office, you could be doing a criminal investigation in the morning and in the afternoon you’re protecting the president of the United States. There’s a little bit of adrenaline in there too.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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