Obama Security Unprecedented

At a stop in Baltimore, Md., bulletproof glass flanks President-elect Barack Obama. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

At a stop in Baltimore, Md., bulletproof glass flanks President-elect Barack Obama. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    The only reason that Obama has a more pronounced security apparatus than previous presidents is because he is planning to institute a Kim Jong Il-style police state.

    It is the ultimate liberal fantasy–and now, it will be our American nightmare.

  2. Joe Stevens says:

    Triumph, are you already drunk?

    It’s only 9AM the day before the inauguration.

  3. Anderson says:

    Few of them, however, are competent to carry out an assassination plot.

    How competent was Oswald? was Hinckley?

  4. James Joyner says:

    How competent was Oswald? was Hinckley?

    We’ve improved executive protection radically since the Kennedy assassination. Hinckley is the only one to come reasonably close in my lifetime, although there have been quite a few semi-serious attempts.

    My point isn’t that we shouldn’t try to spare ourselves the national trauma of a presidential assassination, merely that we shouldn’t close down cities and otherwise massively inconvenience the citizenry “just in case.”

  5. JKB says:

    The inconvenience will continue to grow as long as people permit it. Once it reaches a level where the citizenry tells the dignitary to stay home then a stop will be called. However, for many, the going through security is part of the prestige of being near the President. Exclusive, reclusive, not for the masses is what keeps the inconvenience down. I’ve noticed the shutting down the city is more extensive outside the DC area. Probably because in DC, opinion would quickly turn against the President if his movements locally shut the place down given all the self-important people, doing self-important things in self-important ways in the town. Out in the hinterlands, shutting down street for the Presidential visit is part of the pageantry.

  6. just me says:

    And one of the reasons Hinkley got so close was because he was insane and wasn’t out to assassinate Reagan because of policies r politics, but because he wanted to impress a girl.

    I doubt there is much the secret service can do to protect against that kind of assassin. Monitoring all the websites in the world is unlikely to produce a hint at a Hinkley type.

    I do think there needs to be reasonable security, but at some point it seems to be too much, and the reality is that while a successful assassination would be a tragedy, our government isn’t going to fall apart in the wake of said tragedy.

    At some point the security becomes overkill and seems to impose more than it does anything to help.

  7. leftypower says:

    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.

    Mr. Joyner, you are conflating honest, policy-based dissent with unadulterated racism. There is a difference.

    When someone like Triumph lies to hyperbole about President Obama’s Kim Jong-il-style plans, you provide cover for the latent racists in America who’d rather fix our problems with a rope, a sturdy tree branch and the “N” word.

    I’d rather have Obama’s proven resume of excellence and achievement to address our ills.

  8. tom p says:

    Triumph, are you already drunk?

    When someone like Triumph lies to hyperbole about President Obama’s Kim Jong-il-style plans,

    Triumph… sometimes you are my hero… after all this time, you can still get their goat…