Why Is the Secret Service Investigating a Child Molester?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 29 2011 4:45 PM

What Do Counterfeiters, Assassins, and Child Molesters Have in Common?

They're all investigated by the U.S. Secret Service.

Bernie Fine
Bernie Fine

Photograph by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.

Secret Service agents searched the home of alleged child molester and Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine on Friday. The agents worked alongside local and state police, and appear to be playing a significant role in the investigation. What does the Secret Service have to do with a child molestation case?

It’s part of their portfolio. In 1994, Congress created a task force to help state and local law enforcement officials investigate cases of missing and sexually exploited children, and included two representatives of the Secret Service on the committee. Nine years later, the Amber Alert law officially added child abduction and molestation to the list of crimes the agency is authorized to investigate. Lawmakers reasoned that the skills developed by the Secret Service in foiling would-be assassins, counterfeiters, and credit card fraudsters would make them useful in other sorts of cases, too. Their agents have better equipment and training than many local law enforcement officials in fields like electronic evidence collection, polygraph examinations, and latent fingerprint identification. While the Onondaga district attorney said that the Secret Service is leading the Bernie Fine investigation, child molestation is usually prosecuted under state laws, and the Secret Service insists that it is playing a supporting role.

The U.S. Code suggests that the Secret Service’s jurisdiction is limited to molestation, counterfeiting, financial fraud, and threats against the president, but its agents are available to assist local police with just about any crime. In a murder case, for example, agents might track a suspect’s cellphone history. (The agency has a lot of experience with this—their financial crime investigations often require the agency to hunt down users of prepaid cellphones.) When police request help from the federal government, either the FBI or the Secret Service—or both—will respond depending on which agency has the right resources available at the time. Requests for assistance are often routed through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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According to Ronald Kessler, author of In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, the Secret Service has its own motive in all this—good relationships with local police are crucial in detecting and investigating threats to the president. Agents rely on the locals to pass along tips and to provide intelligence on whether a suspect is a lone wolf or has connections to a more threatening network.

Moving from protecting the president to hunting child molesters might seem like mission creep, but that’s the history of the Secret Service. On the day of his assassination, Abraham Lincoln ordered the creation of an agency within the Treasury Department to combat counterfeiting. (Federal paper money became widespread during the Civil War, in part because the government wanted to conserve metals for the war effort.) The agency had no role in protecting the president until it discovered that a ring of counterfeiters was planning to assassinate Grover Cleveland in 1894. Agents were assigned to full-time White House duty after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Over time, Congress expanded the Secret Service’s bodyguard responsibilities to include presidents-elect, presidential candidates, the president’s family, and former presidents. Woodrow Wilson tasked the agency with investigating espionage in 1915. In 1984, Congress added credit card fraud to their investigative duties, and the Patriot Act put any computer-related fraud into their portfolio.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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