Protection of Executive Branch Officials: Homeland Security Issues in the 116th Congress

Due to the October 2018 attempted bombing attacks on current and former government officials (and others), there may be congressional interest in policy issues surrounding protective details for government officials. Attacks against political leaders and other public figures have been a consistent security issue in the United States. According to a 1998 U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) report, data on assassinations and assassination attempts against federal officials suggest that elected officials are more likely to be targeted than those holding senior appointed positions. Congress also may be interested due to media reports of costs or budgetary requests associated with funding security details for the heads of some departments and agencies, including the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a 2000 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that it was able to identify only one instance when a Cabinet Secretary was physically harmed as a result of an assassination attempt. This occurred when one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators attacked then-Secretary of State William Seward in his home in 1865. Even with few attempted attacks against appointed officials, GAO reported that federal law enforcement entities have provided personal protection details (PPDs) to selected executive branch officials since at least the late 1960s. In total, GAO reported that from FY1997 through FY1999, 42 officials at 31 executive branch agencies received security protection. Personnel from 27 different agencies protected the 42 officials: personnel from their own agencies or departments protected 36 officials, and personnel from other agencies or departments, such as the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) and the USMS, protected the remaining 6 officials. This Insight provides a summary of the statutory authority for executive branch official security, a Trump Administration proposal to consolidate this security under the USMS, and issues for congressional consideration.

Statutory Authority for Protection

The USSS and the State Department are the only two agencies that have specific statutory authority to protect executive branch officials. The USSS is authorized to protect specific individuals under 18 U.S.C. §3056(a); the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service special agents are authorized to protect specific individuals under 22 U.S.C. §2709(a)(3).

In 2000, GAO reported that other agencies providing protective security details to executive branch officials cited various other legal authorities. These authorities included the Inspector General Act of 1978 (5 U.S.C., App. 3), a specific delegation of authority set forth in 7 C.F.R. §2.33(a)(2), and a 1970 memorandum from the White House Counsel to Cabinet departments.

Trump Administration Proposal

The Trump Administration proposed consolidating protective details at certain civilian executive branch agencies under the USMS to more effectively and efficiently monitor and respond to potential threats. This proposal was made in an attempt to standardize executive branch official protection in agencies that currently have USMS security details or have their own employees deputized by the USMS. This proposal would not affect any law enforcement or military agencies with explicit statutory authority to protect executive branch officials, such as the USSS or the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service.

Threat assessments would be conducted with support from the USSS. Specifically, the Trump Administration proposed that the USMS be given the authority to manage protective security details of specified executive branch officials. These officials include the Secretaries of Education, Labor, Energy, Commerce, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Interior; the Deputy Attorney General; and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Trump Administration proposed that Deputy U.S. Marshals would protect all of these Cabinet officials.

Currently, the USMS provides Deputy U.S. Marshals only for the Secretary of Education and the Deputy Attorney General's protective details. These two departments, however, do not have explicit statutory authority for protective details.

Potential Issues for Congress

The Administration's proposal appears to authorize the USMS to staff all protective details of executive branch officials (excluding the USSS and the Departments of State and Defense) deemed to need security, even protective security details that presently are staffed by agencies' employees. Even though the USMS implements or oversees the protection of certain executive branch officials, there appears to be no current study or research to assess the number of additional U.S. Marshals that would be needed to expand protective details to identified executive branch officials under this proposal. Additionally, the proposal does not address the funding that may be needed for USMS protection of executive branch officials. The proposal, however, does state that the Office of Management and Budget would coordinate with the Department of Justice and affected agencies on the budgetary implications.