Secret Service Protection for McCain, Months After Dems

After being reluctant for months, GOP nominee gets a Secret Service fleet.


April 24, 2008 — -- 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.

McCain responded to reporters' questions this month after Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan made the eyebrow-raising disclosure that the senator was going solo at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee, the body that sets the budget for the agency.

"Statutorily, he is not required to take protection," Sullivan explained. "As far as an actual request, we have not gotten one. We have no involvement at this point."

Presidential candidates must ask for protection to be considered, but the criteria limit the recipients of protection to a precious few. Presidents, vice presidents and former holders of those offices all receive protection, with their families.

Protection used to be for a lifetime, but under a new law, President George W. Bush would become the first president to lose protection after 10 years.

Those covered also include foreign heads of state traveling in the United States -- including Pope Benedict XVI in his capacity as head of the Vatican -– and anyone the president directs to be protected.

The agents sweep locations with dogs, scans visitors using magnetometers and visually scour the crowd for potential threats.

It's an expensive, labor intensive effort. The cost to protect Vice President Dick Cheney in the six months after he leaves office next year -- including agents, transportation, advance visits and the rest of it -- is expected to run to $4 million.

Candidates are given protection on a case-by-case basis after consideration by a group called the Bipartisan Advisory Committee, which includes the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and one other member they select. The committee considers popularity of the candidate, as gauged by polls, and fundraising. Final decisions are made by the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Secret Service, now a $1.5-billion-a-year agency, was founded in 1865 as an investigative agency to curb counterfeiting. It didn't begin protecting presidents until 1901, after the assassination of President McKinley.

Protection for presidential candidates has increased since the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who appeared headed to victory in the Democratic nomination after winning California before he was gunned down in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in 1968.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events