Federal Player of the Week

Keith Prewitt: Protecting the president and keeping the Secret Service on its toes

Secret Service Deputy Director Keith Prewitt
Secret Service Deputy Director Keith Prewitt (U.S. Secret Service)
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The Partnership for Public Service
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 3:34 PM

Keith Prewitt vividly remembers his junior high school days in the tumultuous late 1960s when a Memphis police officer reached out to him and his neighborhood friends, counseled them to obey the city curfew, stay safe and keep out of trouble.

"People in my neighborhood didn't trust police officers, but that experience really changed my perspective," said Prewitt. "He took the time to talk to us like we were people he cared about. It may sound hokey, but that was in many ways an epiphany, telling me I needed to get into public service, and here I am."

Today, Prewitt is the deputy director of the U.S. Secret Service, overseeing the agency's day-to-day mission to protect the president and vice president, its investigative functions, and helping to manage more than 6,700 personnel and a budget of about $1.5 billion.

Prewitt assumed this demanding job in 2008 after 25 years on the frontlines and in supervisory positions, including stints on vice presidential details, presidential campaigns and national political conventions, and work protecting American officials at events in more than 110 countries.

"There have been days filled with tension, but if you don't have that feeling, this is probably not the job for you," Prewitt said. "In this business, we have to be right 100 percent of the time. There is no room for error and failure is not an option."

Following his graduation from Memphis State University where he played football and other club sports, Prewitt joined the Memphis Police Department, and was "exposed to a whole laundry list of experiences." This included work on investigations, including of a string of liquor and convenience store robberies, serial burglary investigations, recruitment and many day-to-day encounters in the community.

"I became a de facto psychologist, learned to engage the public and developed negotiation skills to defuse situations that were sometimes chaotic," he said.

Prewitt was recruited by the Memphis field office of the Secret Service in 1983, and worked on financial crime investigations. He progressed steadily through the ranks, including stints in the Washington and Chicago field offices, and over the years took on a wide variety of roles that today includes making high level management decisions and working with the intelligence community on issues such as counterterrorism.

Peter Metzger, a former Marine who worked at the White House during the Reagan administration when Prewitt was on the vice presidential protective detail, said his longtime friend is "a high value, honorable guy" who is "extremely dedicated to his work and loyal to the people that work with him."

"The stakes are often very high, but he has a calm demeanor," said Metzger, the vice chairman of CT Partners, a global executive search firm. "He assimilates information, delegates very well and holds people accountable. Those who work with him say he is demanding, but fair."

Joseph McMillian, an assistant inspector general for investigations at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Prewitt has always been "forward-leaning" in terms of seeking to improve the performance of his agency.

"He identifies challenges for the organization and seeks to change the status quo to make things better," said McMillan, who has known Prewitt through their work together at the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

The mission of the Secret Service is multi-faceted, and includes jurisdiction over currency counterfeiting and financial fraud as well as its more well-known function of providing protection for national leaders, visiting heads of state and special national events.

When it comes to protecting the president, vice president and other government officials, Prewitt said the job requires gathering and assessing intelligence information, constant training, finding ways to reduce vulnerabilities, being "proactive enough" to head off serious problems, and working closely with local law enforcement officials and when overseas, with the foreign security forces.

Over the years, Prewitt said he has been an eyewitness to history thorough his involvement in security during presidential campaigns of 1988, 2000 and 2008; his time detailed to the White House during the 1980s and early 1990s; and overseas trips that included the transition of power in Chile from the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet to a democratically elected leader, and the funeral in India of the assassinated political leader Rajiv Gandhi.

Today, Prewitt is deeply involved in everything from strategic planning and internal operations to the details of a new agency information technology system. Through it all, Prewitt said, he tries to view every single day as a "training day."

"When a leader thinks he knows it all, that's the day things take a bad turn," said Prewitt. "It is important to keep grounded and stay focused."

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 www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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