In the President's Secret Service (29 page)

BOOK: In the President's Secret Service
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“The type of crowds we see in the earlier time frame of the campaign are larger than historically we’ve seen for that time frame,” Sullivan says. While the campaign was the longest in history, “I think that our people have reacted to it very, very well,” Sullivan says. “I’ve been very proud of the way they’ve reacted to it.”

In the summer of 2008, the Secret Service asked for and received an extra $9.5 million to cover unexpected costs of protecting the candidates, in addition to the $106.7 million already budgeted. In all, the Secret Service protected the candidates on 5,141 travel stops. More than 2.8 million people passed through thirty-five hundred Secret Service magnetometers.

That did not include screening 1.5 million people at events attended by the president and other protectees, or screening at the two national conventions, in Denver and in Saint Paul. The Secret Service oversaw security arrangements for the two conventions and set up an off-site communications center at each. The center coordinated the efforts of a hundred representatives from seventy entities ranging from the FBI and local police to local hospitals and utility companies. Manned twenty-four hours a day, each center had tiered seats as in a stadium so those in attendance could easily monitor the screens on the walls.

Every security concern, down to a car being broken into, appeared on a screen with the action being taken to resolve it. At the Republican convention, the Saint Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s office arrested eight hundred protesters. They included three hundred self-described anarchists, most of them affiliated with the RNC Welcoming Committee.

The Secret Service considered the local law enforcement efforts a model of how to handle such threats. Thirteen months earlier, Sheriff Bob Fletcher had organized an intelligence group that infiltrated the Welcoming Committee. A few days before the convention, sheriff’s deputies arrested eight of the group’s leaders and executed search warrants that obtained their plans, maps, and weapons. The group allegedly had planned to barricade bridges, spray delegates with urine, and possibly kidnap delegates. They were charged with conspiring to cause a riot as part of a terrorist act.

At the convention itself in the Xcel Energy Center, several Code-Pink protestors interrupted speeches by Senator McCain and Governor Palin with heckling. As they approached the stage, they revealed pink slips they were wearing. While delegates or the press may have given them guest passes, they also could have obtained them through others who received them from the original recipients. As long as the protesters did not threaten anyone, the Secret Service considered the matter one for the convention’s security force to handle.

“We screen everybody coming in,” an agent says. “If they had posed a threat, we would have addressed it. If they had rushed the stage, if they had tried to get to the protectees, if they had yelled some sort of threat, we would have been involved. But that wasn’t the case.”

Convention security personnel escorted the protesters out, and the Republican National Committee did not press charges.

“They were voicing their First Amendment right to what they had to say, and they were escorted out by the host committee there, so that really wasn’t a Secret Service issue,” Hughes says.

Agents say both Barack Obama—code-named Renegade—and Michelle Obama—code-named Renaissance—treat them with respect, as does Biden.

“Twice Obama invited agents to dinner, including a party for a relative, both at his home,” says an agent who was on his candidate detail. Michelle Obama insists that agents call her by her first name.

“Michelle is friendly—she touches you,” an agent says.

Obama makes an effort to be on time and usually is. If Obama is running late, Michelle gets on his case, saying he is being inconsiderate of his agents. Biden “gets a kick out of shmoozing with agents,” says an agent. “The Bidens buy agents food and are getting to know everyone by name.”

On April 4, 2008, just before Obama’s pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., spoke at the National Press Club, Obama secretly
met with Wright at Wright’s home. So that they would not be noticed, agents made a point of driving Obama in a minivan instead of the usual Suburban. They parked their other vehicles a block away. Obama spent an hour with Wright and then left.

No doubt Obama wanted Wright to fade into the woodwork, but in his press club speech, Wright only confirmed that he thought America created the AIDS virus to kill off blacks. After that, Obama severed ties with him.

After Obama was elected president, Barbara Walters asked him if he worries about his safety. He said he never thinks about it.

“Part of it is because I’ve got this pretty terrific crew of Secret Service guys that follow me everywhere I go, but also because I have a deep religious faith and faith in people that carries me through the day,” he said.

Contrary to Obama’s repeated claims that he is quitting smoking, he has continued to smoke regularly, agents say. A week after being sworn in as president, Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he hadn’t had a cigarette on the White House grounds. That left open the possibility that he smokes on the Truman Balcony and in the White House residence and West Wing. Agents say he smokes outside the White House as well.

Unlike Obama, Secret Service agents say McCain—code-named Phoenix—was irritable, impatient, and displayed his famous temper over trivial annoyances.

“McCain’s really hard to work with,” an agent says. “He’s always complaining, just making comments. We knew from the start that he wasn’t a big fan of ours. We get in his way. We impede his ability to meet the people.”

On the other hand, Cindy McCain—code-named Parasol—was a pleasure to work with and has a good sense of humor, agents say.

After Obama was elected president, his two children—Malia, code-named Radiance, and Sasha, code-named Rosebud—began receiving Secret Service protection. The Secret Service also began protection of Joe Biden’s children, grandchildren, and mother. As with protection of Cheney’s daughters and granddaughters, rather than bringing in additional agents, the Secret Service expected agents to work longer hours to cover much of the extra load and to skip firearms training, physical fitness training, and tests. In fact, because of Biden’s constant travel as vice president—including to his home state of Delaware—the burden on agents became so great that the Secret Service stopped all training on the vice president’s detail. Nonetheless, agents on both his detail and the president’s fill in forms claiming that they have taken and passed all tests, when they have not, creating a dishonest culture.

“We have half the number of agents we need, but requests for more agents have fallen on deaf ears at headquarters,” an agent says. “Headquarters’ mentality has always been, ‘You can complete the mission with what you have. You’re a U.S.S.S. agent.’”

The inauguration of the first African American president and the unprecedented crowd size made the event a high-value target. Once Obama became president, the Secret Service experienced a 400 percent increase in the number of threats against the president, in comparision with President Bush. While most of the threats were not credible, each had to be checked out and adjudicated. Because the Secret Service thinks calling attention to threats gives people ideas and generates more threats, the agency never publicly characterizes their frequency.

Since the inauguration was a special national security event, the Secret Service was the lead agency in charge of security. The security precautions were unprecedented. Under the Secret Service’s plan, a large section of downtown Washington was cordoned off. Personal
vehicles were banned from Potomac River bridge crossings to D.C. Interstates 395 and 66 leading into Washington were closed to personal traffic as well.

As with previous inaugurations, the Secret Service arranged to block with concrete barriers or police cars every street in Washington leading to the motorcade route. Since the 9/11 attack, crowds must now pass through magnetometers before entering the area along the motorcade route. Coolers, backpacks, and packages were banned.

Secret Service agents and military explosives experts inspected manholes and underground tunnels along the motorcade route. Manhole covers were spot-welded shut. Mailboxes and trash cans were removed from the street. If an item could not be removed, it was inspected and taped shut. If anyone tampered with it, the special tape—which varies in color with the event—would deteriorate.

Bomb-sniffing dogs inspected buildings, garages, and delivery trucks. Employees in offices along the route and hotel guests were often checked for criminal records. Agents made sure they had access to every office and hotel room with master keys kept by building or hotel managers. They taped shut utility rooms or electrical circuit boards. They stationed agents or police officers on top of buildings.

More than a dozen countersniper teams were deployed at the most vulnerable points along the parade route. Helicopters hovered overhead, other aircraft were kept away, and high-resolution surveillance cameras scanned the crowds. A $350,000 loudspeaker system using sonar technology was installed to give instructions in the event of an emergency.

“Every window must be closed when the motorcade passes,” a supervisory agent says. “We have spotters looking at them with binoculars. For the most part they comply. If they don’t, we have master keys to all those doors. We ask them why they are there and opening the windows.”

If agents encountered a problem, they called for an ID team. Named for the Intelligence Division, the ID team travels with the president and vice president. It is usually composed of a Secret Service agent and a local police officer. At the inauguration, most of the ID teams consisted of Secret Service agents. Several times, the teams interviewed suspicious individuals.

In all, the Secret Service coordinated the work of at least forty thousand officers and agents from ninety-four federal and local law enforcement, military, and security agencies. Police departments from across the country contributed officers, many wearing plain clothes. The total force was double that of Bush’s second inauguration.

Just past noon on January 20, Obama placed his left hand on the Lincoln Bible, a velvet-bound volume purchased by a Supreme Court clerk for the Great Emancipator’s swearing in on March 4, 1861. Obama raised his right hand and took the thirty-five-word oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Twice, Obama and his wife, Michelle, left their limousine to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue and wave to the crowds. Jimmy Carter was the first president to do this, spontaneously leaving his limousine without clearing it with the Secret Service. Since then, the Secret Service has scripted where the president should walk, providing extra security along the way.

Intelligence officials picked up information that people associated with a Somalia-based group, al-Shabaab, might try to travel to the United States with plans to disrupt the inauguration. The information had limited specificity and uncertain credibility.

In the end, nearly two million people packed the outside of the Capitol, the parade route, and the National Mall. The inauguration went off without a hitch. Yet even as Obama took the oath of office, the Secret Service took risks by cutting corners. Contributors who raised three hundred thousand dollars or more for the inauguration were
never asked to show identification to pick up tickets, including VIP passes allowing them and their guests to meet privately with him. Others who were screened before sitting in a ticketed area near Obama during his swearing-in mingled with crowds that were not screened. They were never again checked for firearms or explosives.

More than a hundred VIPs were told to gather for a security screening outside the Renaissance Hotel before boarding “secure” buses that would take them to Obama’s podium at the Capitol. But after passing through the magnetometers, they were told to walk on a public sidewalk and find their way to buses waiting in a convention center parking lot. They were not screened again or asked for identification.

One donor who handled contributions for the inauguration told
The Washington Post
that he was shocked at the difference between Secret Service security during Bill Clinton’s inaugurations and Obama’s.

“The lack of security was absurd,” he said.

As usual, the Secret Service claimed some security measures are not visible.

“We take a layered approach to security and don’t rely on any one countermeasure to ensure that a site is safe,” spokesman Ed Donovan said.

Yet for all the mumbo jumbo about layered security, the fact is that by failing to properly screen spectators, the Secret Service exposed the new president to possible danger.



N HIS OFFICE on the ninth floor of Secret Service headquarters, Nicholas Trotta, who heads the Office of Protective Operations, is talking about lessons learned from previous assassinations and assassination attempts. After the attempt on President Reagan’s life, “We expanded our use of the magnetometers.” Now, he says, “Everyone goes through the magnetometer.”

BOOK: In the President's Secret Service
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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