Posted Dec. 9, 2008- Months before learning that it would have the duty to protect America’s first-ever Black president-elect in former Sen. Barack Obama, the U.S. Secret Service made its own small contribution to history. On July 20, 2008, veteran special agent Keith L. Prewitt was named only the third Black deputy director in the agency’s 143-year existence. The Memphis native and ex-cop has a distinguished law enforcement career. As deputy director, he oversees the Secret Service’s daily operations, including 6,600 personnel and a $1.4 billion budget, plus implementing policy and protection strategies. Here, Deputy Director Prewitt speaks exclusively with BET.com about securing the world’s most high-profile government leader. With widespread media reports that threats – valid and otherwise – against the president-elect are at a peak, he sheds light on protection strategies. But as the agency’s name suggests, some things remain a secret.
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BET.com: Generally speaking, what are the main safeguards involved with securing the incoming president and his family?
Deputy Director Prewitt: We never specifically discuss our methods and means of protection. It’s our duty to provide a safe environment for the president and his family 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
BET.com: Can you provide a sense of how the Secret Service distinguishes serious threats against the president from pranks and hoaxes?
Deputy Director Prewitt: Protective intelligence is a crucial part of the Secret Service’s mission. Our protective and investigative methodologies are proactive and preventive. We are constantly engaged with partners throughout the law enforcement and intelligence communities, in order to keep the overall security picture in focus and to stay ahead of emerging threats that have the potential to impact our protective mission. We take any threats against our protectees very seriously. In most cases, intent can only be determined through interview and further investigation. We do not have the luxury of discounting behavior until we have investigated in order to determine intent.
BET.com: What type of background screening, personal and professional, goes into determining which agents are assigned to protect the president?
Deputy Director Prewitt: There is no special screening that goes into who is selected for a permanent protection detail like the Presidential Protective Division or Vice Presidential Protective Division. Agents spend about seven to nine years in a field assignment, conducting investigations as well as being assigned to protection. The second phase of their career usually involves doing a permanent protective assignment.
BET.com: What precautions are taken in screening White House visitors and building staff, such as kitchen and housekeeping?
Deputy Director Prewitt: This falls into the category of our methods and means of protection, something we never discuss specifically. As you can imagine, we take every precaution in protecting the White House facility.
BET.com: Is it true that a meaningless verbal threat against the president can still result in arrest?
Deputy Director Prewitt: No, but as I said earlier, we take any threats against our protectees very seriously. In most cases, intent can only be determined through interview and further investigation. We are very cognizant and have great respect for an individual’s right to express themselves, but when they cross the line, we have a duty and obligation to determine intent.
BET.com: What kind of action is taken to protect the president and his family in the event of national emergencies or threats like Sept. 11?
Deputy Director Prewitt: We work with a number of different agencies, including the White House Military Office and the Department of Defense, to put procedures in place that safeguard the president in the event of a national emergency or crisis situation.
BET.com: If a president’s sense of duty puts him in danger, who has the greater authority to determine action, the president or his protection?
Deputy Director Prewitt: The Secret Service works closely with White House staff to ensure they have all the information necessary as decisions are made regarding the president’s schedule, travel and itinerary. However, they defer to us to keep the president safe.
BET.com: What professional training and experience is required of Secret Service agents?
Deputy Director Prewitt: To qualify for the special agent position, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen and be less than 37 years of age when appointed. Applicants should have, number one, a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university; number two, three years of work experience in the criminal investigations or law enforcement fields that required knowledge and application of laws relating to criminal violations; or number three, an equivalent combination of education and related experience. However, degrees in law enforcement, criminal justice accounting, foreign languages and computer science may be beneficial. Before being considered for a special agent position, candidates must pass the Treasury Enforcement Agent Examination or the U.S. Marshal Enforcement, 1811 Series Eligibility, Examination. Candidates may apply at a branch of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management or at the nearest Secret Service field office. A limited number of the most qualified applicants will receive a series of in-depth interviews. These candidates must successfully complete a polygraph examination, a physical, an eye test – 20/60 correctable to 20/20 vision is required – and participate in a drug-screening program as a condition of employment. The Secret Service has agents assigned to more than 150 offices located in cities across the United States and around the world.
BET.com: What, if any, measures are taken for securing those beyond the president’s immediate household family? For example, are President-elect Obama’s sister or his aunt in Boston given protection?
Deputy Director Prewitt: By law, the Secret Service is authorized to protect the president, the vice president, or other individuals next in order of succession to the Office of the President, the president-elect and vice president-elect, the immediate families of the (preceding) individuals, and other individuals as designated per Executive Order of the President.
BET.com: What requests would you make of the general public in identifying threats from within our communities, on the Web, at our jobs, or even graffiti that has been reported since Obama’s election?
Deputy Director Prewitt: I would ask the general public to contact their local Secret Service field office if they become aware of a threat against any of our protectees. That would include threatening comments, literature, graffiti etc. The general public is one of our most important partners in keeping all those we protect safe. We regularly solicit and rely on information they provide.