Inside the Secret Service's secret museum

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

On a downtown Washington street like any other sits a modern office building like any other. Commuters and tourists alike push past its anodyne brick and glass face without giving it a glance, never knowing that it houses the headquarters of the U. S. Secret Service — and the hidden museum that tells the story of the small agency with a big mission.

The museum is not open to the public, only to invited guests. Yahoo News recently got an insider’s tour, complete with a welcome from Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, the first woman to hold the post.

What treasures are in one of the most striking collections you’ll never see? Mainly artifacts reflecting the dangers of public life. There’s the actual window from the armored limousine Ronald Reagan was heading for on that fateful day in 1981 when John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate him. One of Hinckley’s six shots struck the glass, leaving a distinctive mark, while others hit the president and three officials, including a Secret Service agent.

There’s the assault rifle Francisco Martin Duran pulled from under his trench coat and used to spray 29 shots at the White House in October 1994. You can get a good look at the road atlas Duran used for his cross-country trip to Washington.

It is marked up with messages like “Kill The Pres! We are all Both God + Devil, Man is all he Created.”

One case holds relics recovered after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, now rusted. In another sits the replica of a Tommy gun — the weapon that, at one time, was issued to Secret Service operatives. In yet another, one operative’s sketch of the seating plan for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. But it’s not a mission document, he just sent it to his mother.

One set of mugshots shows how far law enforcement has come. Officials who today can snap a photo with their phones would have faced considerable obstacles capturing images back in an era when not every police department — and not every city — had a camera. For Secret Service operatives in the agency’s early years, at the end of the 19th century, making an arrest sometimes meant hunting for the closest city with a photographer.

Abraham Lincoln signed the order creating the Secret Service on April 14, 1865, and was assassinated hours later by John Wilkes Booth.

The agency’s original mission focused on combating counterfeiters. It wasn’t until 1902 that it also took over full-time protection of the president, in the aftermath of William McKinley’s assassination. Presidential candidates started getting Secret Service protection only after a gunman cut down Robert Kennedy in 1968. (For more about the agency’s evolving role, see: “After JFK, a Secret Service transformed.”)

The museum features a seven-minute video narrated by Clint Eastwood, who played a Secret Service agent up against John Malkovich’s assassin in “In the Line of Fire.”

The movie is a favorite among current agents. And if you’re lucky, you might get to handle one of Malkovich’s three prop guns.

The one that doesn’t fire, of course.