James Murray ’90: Selfless Service

The new director of the Secret Service, of whom much is expected, reflects on the demands of his job and his rise to the top of the government agency.

James Murray being sworn in as the 26th director of the Secret Service in May 2019.
James Murray being sworn in as the 26th director of the Secret Service in May 2019.

You have to be ready for the things you don’t expect.

It’s a mantra that James Murray ’90 has repeated to himself during his 29-year career in law enforcement, including when he was named the 26th director of the Secret Service in May.

“I never intended or expected to be the director of the Secret Service,” said Murray, who is now in charge of 142 domestic field offices, 19 international field offices and 7,300 employees. “Even though I was stunned when I got the word, I was obviously proud and humbled and honored.It was simply the support of the people I work with here that gave me the confidence to do this, and they continue to give me that support every day.”

Murray mentions “expectations” frequently, reflecting on what he expected in his life and how that changed over the years. He seeks to live up to a standard set by his parents, colleagues, friends and teachers. His mother, who waited tables to put the kids through Catholic school, and his father, a state trooper, inspired him, he said, as did many friends and professors at Scranton.

“I realize that every time that I don’t comport myself in the way that I should, I’m not only letting myself down, I’m also letting the people I model myself after down,” he said. “And many of those people were at Scranton. That includes all the people I lived with at 1215 Linden.”

According to Dave Peracchio ’90, Murray’s former roommate on Linden, the new director is “of the highest character with the utmost integrity. ... He’s someone you’d trust with your life.”

A Cadet

As an ROTC cadet at Scranton, Murray, a Point Pleasant, New Jersey, native, often woke at dawn to train and dedicated most of his time to the program, but he insists that he was “far and away not the best cadet.” He relied on his mentors, he said, both his sergeants and his history and criminal justice professors to help him through. But it wasn’t only the ROTC program that persuaded him to come to Scranton. On his first visit, as a high school senior, he said he simply felt welcome.

"If you’re going to be of service to others then you have to give up yourself."

“Whether it was students in school or people in town, everybody said hello and looked you in the eye and smiled,” he remembered. “I had the sense that when you were introduced to folks and they said ‘Hi, how are you?’ and ‘Nice to meet you,’ they meant it. That was really why I chose Scranton in the end.”

He was also inspired by the “inclusiveness of the Jesuits,” who disavowed Greek life. He learned to be even more appreciative of the Jesuit tradition as the years went on.

“(That tradition) made me realize that you can’t get through life contributing only the bare minimum,” he said. “If you’re going to be of service to others then you have to give up yourself. And that’s certainly helped me as I’ve pursued this career with the Secret Service.”

Fully expecting to go into the Army on active duty upon graduation, Murray had a clear path ahead of him. However, during his senior year, the Gramm-Rudman Act took effect, reducing government spending on defense programs. During intersession that year, University cadets gathered in what was then Jefferson Hall, later Leahy Hall, to learn that their futures might not be what they had imagined. It was on this cold day in January that Murray was assigned to the reserves, leaving his next few years fairly wide open.

As he walked out of Jefferson Hall, he immediately encountered a fellow cadet who was headed up the Commons where the U.S. Department of Transportation was conducting job interviews. He decided he would tag along, even though he had dressed casually that day, in jeans, a leather jacket and work boots. After a few interviews, he got his first job.

“I can’t say I’ve always been lucky in life, but I felt lucky that day,” he said.

An Unexpected Path

Murray went on to spend several years as a special agent investigator with the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 1995, he began his career with the Secret Service in the New York Field Office, where, over the next six years, he would be involved in criminal and financial investigations as well as protective operations.

During the latter part of his time at the New York Field Office, he served as the agency’s representative to the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Just prior to 9/11, the JTTF was focused on Y2K, a computer programming issue threatening to leave the country susceptible to terrorism. It was one of the biggest threats 20 years ago, but the world has changed, said Murray, with domestic terrorism threats ever-increasing.

“It’s almost quaint and comical to look back and think that that was something that we thought was daunting,” he said, “when two years later the world would change for us.”

On 9/11, Murray was in the White House, having begun his new detail in the Presidential Protective Division (PPD) at the end of 2000.

“Candidly, none of us expected that day. It was jarring, to say the least,” he said. “Everything we do here in the Secret Service is predicated on ‘What are we going to do if it’s a bad day?’ Prime amongst our imperatives is readiness. You have to be ready for the things you don’t expect.”

He worked, without going home to his wife, for more than 30 days straight.

Answering a Calling

After the shock of 9/11 subsided and he and his wife welcomed their first of two sets of twins into their new home in Washington D.C., he realized that life in the PPD would likely not allow for much of a work-life balance. Once, when he returned home late one night, he noticed a calendar on which his wife had written the number 240. She had been logging the nights he was away that year when she was alone with the toddlers, having given up her law career to take care of the children.

“None of us, whether we’re agents or officers, could endure the rigors or the sacrifice in this job without the full and active support of our loved ones,” said Murray.

He was answering that calling on the PPD, where he was in charge of planning the protection for President George W. Bush’s trips to Moscow for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Red Square and, in early 2006, a covert trip to Afghanistan, the first visit to Afghanistan by any U.S. president.

In Kabul, President Bush was greeted by protesters, no doubt an added pressure on Murray and the rest of the PPD. Murray, having worked for several presidents over the years, planning for campaigns and inaugurations for both Republicans and Democrats, said that one of his jobs is to remain nonpartisan

“The Secret Service, and everybody here at the Secret Service, is willfully and deliberately agnostic when it comes to politics. We’re apolitical,” he said.

Ask Murray to speak about himself or his views and he often speaks as a representative of the entire government agency. He has taken on his role as director, swiftly and with pride; he seems to have become what people have expected of him, with a little help from the Jesuits.

“The Secret Service is a very selfless endeavor,” he said. “I think you have to be somebody who is mindful of being of service to others in order to do this job. There is a corollary to the Jesuit tradition.”

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