Obama Security Unprecedented
The country’s first black president will also be its most heavily protected, WaPo‘s Spenser Hsu reports.
As jubilant Democrats nominated Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president in a Denver convention hall in late August, the U.S. Secret Service in Washington placed its largest ever order for bulletproof glass. The service requested about 5 tons of “transparent armor,” laminated with four layers of virtually unbreakable plastic to resist chemicals, flames and multiple gunshots. When Obama is sworn in as the nation’s 44th president Tuesday, the ballistic shield will provide a final layer of safety in a massive exercise in presidential security, the culmination of two years of a steady ratcheting up of the protection around Obama to a level unseen for any of his predecessors.
“I don’t think there could have been any higher-order target for [Osama] bin Laden than [President Bush], because this president launched the attack on Afghanistan,” Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department oversees the Secret Service, told The Washington Post last month. “I think what will be different perhaps for the new president is [he] may excite the attention of some domestic groups that maybe were not that engaged previously. And so that’s an issue we’re going to have to be looking at.”
Privately, current and former Secret Service and U.S. intelligence officials interviewed for this article confirmed that Obama’s ascent has led to spikes in threatening “chatter” on white supremacist Web sites and a smattering of incidents around the country that led to intensive investigation. “Ultimately, there are a higher number of threats,” one former senior Secret Service official said. “My friends and family members certainly in the last couple months said, ‘Oh, my goodness, the Secret Service must be having such a difficult time.’ Well, they are in the sense that every one of these that comes up must be investigated. That takes time and effort and money. They just need to be permitted to do the job.”
During the past year, the Secret Service swept about 4.3 million people with metal detectors at campaign and official events, twice as many as the 2.2 million checked in 2004, the first election in which it began routinely using magnetometers for events by candidates other than sitting presidents, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said.
It’s a good thing that Barack Obama is keeping his BlackBerry because his contact with the outside world is going to be very limited, indeed.
This, unfortunately, is part of a trend that long predates Obama’s candidacy. The security bureaucracy has been growing since the Kennedy assassination and has exploded in recent years. The Oklahoma City bombing led to the closure of the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and made it much harder for citizens to enter federal buildings, especially courthouses. The 9/11 attacks led to massively increased security in not only our airports but also our national monuments and museums.
I have little doubt that some extremist groups are unhappy with a black president. But there are always extremist groups unhappy about the policies of the man in the White House. Some of them are capable of violence. Few of them, however, are competent to carry out an assassination plot.
Left to their own devices, the Secret Service — like any other bureaucracy — will take its mission to its illogical conclusion. We’ve got to rein it in, balancing reasonable precautions for the safety of the public and its officials with freedom of movement and, yes, cost.