When you hear the words Secret Service, you’re probably imagining fit men in crisp suits wearing sunglasses and listening to instructions through an earpiece while standing outside of the White House. It’s hard to envision them in Philadelphia. But the agents are here. They’ve been setting plans with city officials and other agencies and talking to businesses about the pope’s visit. While doing so, the group has stirred up a reasonable amount of commotion, garnering complaints from business owners, restaurateurs and former mayor Ed Rendell.

Billy Penn explains the Secret Service’s duties, the events it usually covers and all the complications it has been causing.  

Why is the Secret Service doing all this work?

The Secret Service is, of course, tasked with protecting sitting presidents and their families, as well as former presidents. But the agency must also protect heads of state visiting the U.S. and coordinate security for National Special Security Events.

This pope party is a double whammy. Pope Francis is considered the head of state of Vatican City, and his visit was last year declared a National Special Security Event by the Department of Homeland Security Secretary.

And that means the Secret Service, in its own words, assumes the “mandated role as the lead agency for the design and implementation of the operational security plan.”   

So they’re the people drawing up all this fence and traffic box stuff?

Yeah, basically. They’re coordinating with the city and other governmental agencies, but as mentioned above they are the “lead agency.”

What else?

Well, the last few weeks/months the Secret Service, as well as Philly police, has been visiting Philadelphia business owners. Some have been concerned the Secret Service hasn’t provided enough information.

So they’re not happy?

Some of them aren’t. That’s for sure. Neither is Ed Rendell. During an interview on WIP, Rendell said, “I think the Secret Service has sort of run over the city. The secret service has one goal—that the principal or in this case the Pope, doesn’t get hurt. And they couldn’t care less if nobody showed up and watched the Pope, as long as the Pope doesn’t get hurt on their watch.”

Is it like one big, happy family between the Secret Service and the city?

Not really. With irritation levels from Philadelphians and media staying high, each side has been throwing various amounts of shade at/assigning blame to the other. Mayor Michael Nutter, according to sources of Philly Mag’s Patrick Kerkstra, wanted to release more information about security earlier but was being hamstrung by the Secret Service. The Secret Service responding by saying, “NOT US.” Really, the Secret Service said they weren’t the ones limiting SEPTA service and wouldn’t ask businesses to close.   

Has the Secret Service operated in Philadelphia before?

Yes. The group was involved with security for Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit. According to old issues of the Daily News, the Secret Service circled above the pope’s motorcade in a helicopter and did background checks on the people scheduled to receive communion from the pope.

And though Nutter claimed this year’s pope visit to be Philadelphia’s first National Special Security Event, it is not. The Secret Service also led security efforts for the 2000 Republican National Convention because the convention was a National Special Security Event. And anytime the President of Vice President or a head of state has visited, they’ve been working here.   

Did those events require a fence or a traffic box?

Nope. In fact, Thomas Ginsberg of the Inquirer wrote in 2000 that security prep by the Secret Service was moving into high gear and “going unnoticed by most Philadelphians.” Can’t really say the same applies for this World Meeting of Families event.  

Will I be able to notice Secret Service agents around town when the big day arrives?

Maybe some of them. But it’s likely many will be undercover. In 2000, many agents dressed like tourists.  

The Secret Service has been in the news lately, and not just for Secret Servicin,’ right?

That’s correct. In fact, the Secret Service has been embroiled in so much controversy/dereliction of duty you’ve probably forgotten about some of it. Here’s a quick rundown of the bad stuff that’s happened the last few years: an intruder hopped over the White House fence and into the house, shots were fired at the White House with no response, agents got caught drinking heavily with prostitutes in Colombia, an agent drank so heavily in the Netherlands he was found sleeping in the hotel hallway and agents hosted loud parties in Martha’s Vineyard while the Obamas were visiting.

During all this controversy, two Secret Service directors have resigned, including one, Julia Pierson, who was hired to clean things up.

I see the Secret Service has a field office in Philly. What does our branch do when the pope’s not in town?

Great question. Apparently it helps with protection and investigations, according to spokesperson Nicole Mainor. The Secret Service is pretty hush-hush about specific duties.

But if you’ve been following the release of information for the pope’s visit, you probably already knew that.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...