Scope of Obama's Secret Service Protection Proves Daunting

Officials take race into consideration when tailoring security plans Obama.

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.

The Pentagon plans to deploy about 5,000 troops, a mix of personnel from every branch of service for both security and ceremonial purposes, according to the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee.

In addition, Washington's police department is coordinating with 96 police agencies across the nation that are sending 4,000 officers to help secure the event, says D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes.

Burke says challenges include providing the large crowds with enough space to "appreciate the historical significance of the event," while maintaining a high level of security for Obama.

Ray Mey, a former FBI agent who helped with security for the 1997 Clinton inauguration, says the crowds that gathered during the 2007-08 campaign and Obama's close interaction with them signal the new president will be "a tough guy to protect."

"He likes to get out in the crowd," Mey says.

The long election cycle and the enormous crowds at Obama's events already have stretched Secret Service resources. As a candidate, Obama began receiving Secret Service protection 1½ years before the general election after congressional officials such as Sen. Dick Durbin, Obama's senior Democratic colleague from Illinois, expressed concern that the large crowds Obama was drawing could obscure a threat to the candidate.

Durbin also told reporters in May 2007 that he was worried about the sharp rhetoric directed at Obama. Durbin, who did not publicly elaborate on the issue at the time, passed the information about the troubling rhetoric to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who went to the Secret Service with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to share their concerns.

This year, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told a congressional panel that the "tempo" of the campaign was "unlike anything we've ever seen before." Sullivan said the agency borrowed about 1,000 Transportation Security Administration officers to assist with screening at crowded campaign venues for all candidates.

The early protection given to Obama and the large field of 2008 candidates could push Secret Service security costs well past 2004 levels. Sullivan estimated the agency planned to provide a total 739 days of protection for all covered candidates, relatives and former officeholders, costing about $44,000 a day for each person receiving protection. In 2004, the agency provided 454 days' worth of security.

During the congressional hearing in April, Sullivan told the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee: "We pay an awful lot of attention to the threats out there."

Anxiety in Denver

That was the case when information emerged during a traffic stop before the August Democratic National Convention in Denver about a possible assassination attempt on Obama. An alarm was sounded that sent waves of anxiety from Colorado to Washington, D.C.

Investigators quickly determined that the three main suspects — initially feared to have ties to the violent white supremacist movement — did not pose a serious threat to Obama.

Yet the incident, as described by federal investigators, offers a rare glimpse two months before Inauguration Day of the intensity of security surrounding then-candidate and now President-elect Obama.

In the months leading up to the convention, an estimated 500 FBI agents and 1,000 Secret Service agents were dispatched to the city. Weapons experts prepared for a bombing or other terrorist attack. Federal hostage negotiators planned for a host of crises.

About 60 investigators from 20 local agencies in the region were assigned to gather intelligence about threats, including any directed against Obama, Denver FBI chief Jim Davis says. Teams of federal agents and local police rousted confidential sources in search of information.

"We weren't picking anything up," he says. "It was very quiet."

That changed at 2:24 a.m. Aug. 24 — the day before the convention started — when a suburban Denver police officer stopped a blue 2008 Dodge pickup.

A search of the truck, court documents show, turned up bullet-resistant body armor, wigs, two rifles with mounted scopes, walkie-talkies and a device that braces firearms for more accurate firing.

Police relayed their findings to a federal intelligence center in Denver, which sent 100 investigators to the streets.

The truck driver led agents to four other associates. One of them, according to court documents, told investigators that two of his colleagues had discussed a plan to "kill" Obama by setting up a high-powered rifle on a vantage point overlooking Invesco Field at Mile High, where Obama was to deliver his acceptance speech.

"Assuming that this was a credible plot, we had to ask ourselves: 'Do we have everybody involved?' " Davis says. "At that point, there was no degree of certainty that we had."

Investigators pursued leads as far away as Kansas. Analysts used satellite technology to try to pinpoint possible locations from which a high-powered rifle could reach the speaker's podium.

Yet, almost as quickly as the threat appeared, it began to "melt down," Davis says.

Within 18 hours, interviews with the suspects and other investigative efforts revealed that none had ties to white supremacist groups. The alleged plot against Obama, agents concluded, was a product of apparent drug-induced bluster. The weapons and other suspicious equipment were related to the suspects' involvement in the methamphetamine trade.

'Worrisome Vitriol'

Eight days before the election, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it had foiled a bizarre assassination plot against Obama by two men whom prosecutors said could have links to the white supremacist movement.

The men, who were charged with weapons violations and making threats, allegedly planned a killing rampage that would have begun at a predominantly African-American school and ended with an attack on Obama.

ATF spokesman Robert Browning immediately noted that the loosely organized plot raised questions about whether the suspects could have carried it out.

Even so, former FBI agent Mey says Obama's election has the potential to reinvigorate the radical right, a mix of militia and patriot groups that thrived during the Clinton administration.

In the wake of Obama's election, white supremacist leaders are claiming a surge in membership, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the groups' activities.

While Obama was giving his stirring acceptance speech in Chicago on Nov. 4, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was rallying the white supremacist movement in a provocative call to action, saying Obama's election represented a "night of tragedy and sadness."

"Barack Obama has long history of antagonizing white people," Duke said in an audio message broadcast on the radical website "We as European Americans have to rally for our survival."

Duke did not advocate violence, but Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman Mark Potok says Duke's message is part of the recent wave of "worrisome vitriol" directed at the president-elect.

"There is a real fury out there; a boiling rage," Potok says.

Mey says security for this inaugural likely will be tighter than for any other — including President Bush's 2005 inauguration, the first after the 9/11 terror attacks. For that event, fighter jets patrolled the skies over the capital, radiological sensors were located in the city's Metrorail system and Coast Guard units monitored the local rivers.

"I would expect (this) inauguration to be completely buckled down," he says.

City under surveillance

Despite Washington's long experience dealing with large gatherings — from Fourth of July celebrations and global summits to demonstrations on the National Mall — Burke describes inaugurations as the "biggest challenges." Protection for visiting dignitaries, street closures and sprawling outdoor venues require a meticulously choreographed security operation.

Since 9/11, Washington has installed a network of dozens of surveillance cameras that allow officials to more easily monitor multiple locations during major events.

Mey says the camera technology is key to the security effort, adding a layer of protection to the thousands of officers in uniform and those roaming the crowd in plainclothes.

"You never really have it down to a science," Burke says of security planning.

Jesse Jackson, a two-time Democratic presidential candidate who says his campaigns drew scores of threats, says the nation's "legacy of violence" requires a large security presence.

Obama "must be careful," Jackson says. "He just can't be wandering into any crowds."

Jarvis, the former Secret Service agent, says the risks brought to life by the 9/11 attacks and other tragedies, including the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, are simply too great to dismiss.

"The consequences?" Jarvis asks. "Nobody wants to think about it."