Scope of Obama's Secret Service Protection Proves Daunting

Officials take race into consideration when tailoring security plans Obama.

ByABC News
December 15, 2008, 12:40 PM

Dec. 15, 2008— -- On the historic night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, a sobering image was lost in the euphoria of the cheering crowd in Chicago's Grant Park: Clear sheaths of bulletproof glass shielded both sides of the stage where the then-Democratic senator of Illinois declared victory.

Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis says there were no credible threats targeting Obama that night. The glass, he says, was merely a precaution, given the enormous crowd and the high-rises looming over the sprawling outdoor venue.

The scene on Nov. 4 offered a preview of the excitement and a crowd expected to top the previous inaugural high of 1.2 million in Washington when Obama takes the oath of office Jan. 20. The occasion will be a huge test for the federal and local authorities charged with protecting the new president.

Obama's election shattered social and political barriers. His historic inauguration also marks a critical time for federal law enforcement officials who must — as with every new occupant of the White House — tailor an elaborate security plan to fit the new president and his family. In Obama's case, that involves an additional consideration: his race.

Obama received Secret Service protection 18 months before the election, the earliest of any previously unprotected presidential candidate, in part because of concerns about racially charged rhetoric that had been directed at him.

"The fact that this is an African American is not lost on us," Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley says. "We understand that this is a historic event; we understand that this is different from other inaugurations. It is one additional piece that we factor into the plan."

Washington, D.C., Assistant Police Chief Patrick Burke says the crowds "will likely make this the biggest inauguration" in U.S. history. "The exuberance of that crowd in Chicago kicked us into high gear."

The inaugural security plan, Burke says, will include an intelligence-gathering operation involving "the entire intelligence community."

Directed by the Secret Service, the operation is designed to vet all possible threats, including those that could be posed by hate groups. The Secret Service does not discuss threats against current or past presidents.

Former Secret Service agent Norm Jarvis, who was involved in the protection of four presidents, says the level of security for any president remains at a constant high — and that balancing the need for security with allowing public access to a president is a persistent challenge. There is a "built-in antipathy" for every president regardless of party affiliation among some members of the public and advocacy groups, he says.

With Obama, Jarvis says, agents assigned to the new president will feel an unspoken — but increased — pressure to shield America's first black chief executive. "I know agents are coming to grips with the fact that they have got to lay it on the line," he says.

Wiley dismisses the suggestion of added pressure, saying that Obama's historic role is "one of myriad" security considerations. For months, Wiley says, officials have been overseeing the Inauguration Day roles of 58 federal, state and local security agencies, including the U.S. military.