Secret Service Protection for McCain, Months After Dems

The day of the sleeve talker has finally dawned for John McCain, after months of resisting Secret Service protection.

"We do have a Secret Service presence with Sen. McCain right now," agency spokesman Malcolm Wiley confirmed Wednesday.

The Republican senator from Arizona had long been reluctant to campaign accompanied by dark-suited, shades-donning, crowd-scanning agents because, he has said, it would inhibit his contact with voters during the campaign. But ABC News has learned that after McCain reconsidered his security situation, protection began this week, long after that of his two Democratic rivals.

Secret Service officials are wary of giving details such as how many agents are involved and when the protection started. Department of Homeland Security spokesman William Knocke confirmed that Secretary Michael Chertoff approved protection for McCain, but he too declined to confirm when it began or the makeup of McCain's security detail.

As a former first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton has been accompanied by Secret Service agents since she left the White House in 2001. Sen. Barack Obama, by contrast, began receiving Secret Service protection for the first time in May 2007, earlier than any other presidential hopeful in history, after death threats to his campaign.

It's a busy time for the Secret Service. For those two Democrats alone, the agency provided security at about 900 campaign events through the beginning of March.

While McCain seemed to enjoy the relative freedom of delving into unscreened crowds and riding Amtrak trains unencumbered by an entourage through this spring, even after he became the presumptive Republican nominee, the perils made his wife uneasy.

"I'm looking at the faces and sometimes I'm spotting troublesome spots," Cindy McCain recently told The Chicago Tribune of McCain's pre-Secret Service days.

McCain's reluctance to receive protection inspired criticism from former agents who said he was putting others at risk and from The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which published an April 7 editorial, warning that the decision to go without Secret Service protection was "John McCain's big mistake," one that threatened the "stability of the political system."

Historically speaking, McCain is hardly alone in shunning the limitations and large footprint of taxpayer-funded security. Billionaire Ross Perot declined it during his third-party 1992 presidential bid. Others, including former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, have asked for protection and been turned down, former agency officials said.

"One of the reasons that Congress decided that candidates should receive protection is so that our democratic process isn't altered by the hand of one individual, in the case of an assassination," said Barbara Riggs, who protected President Reagan and recently retired from a 31-year career as deputy director of the Secret Service.

"When an individual chooses not to take it, it's just an individual choice," Riggs said. "Certainly, having Secret Service protection impacts people's lives."

Journalists accompanying McCain's campaign have long known that the senator was not protected but declined to report it publicly out of a concern that disclosure might inspire would-be assailants.

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