Recent woes from the Secret Service’s sometimes-sloppy protection of the US president has touched on a half-hidden fear by black Americans and the black-white divide that still bedevils America. J. BROOKS SPECTOR goes deeper.
As virtually everyone who reads this publication knows by now, the Secret Service, the men and women charged with protecting the president and a few other top officials – the protective force that is often captioned with the phrase that “they would take a bullet for the president” – has had a really rotten couple of weeks. Despite all their dedication to their jobs, their weaponry and stringent training, on more than one occasion in the past several years, they had been unable to stop fence jumpers at the White House. Then there has been the occasional armed intruder from wandering through the presidential mansion. Moreover, they failed to detect a presumably deranged man from taking pot shots at the windows of the president’s private quarters with a high velocity rifle.
Some agents have even been found out engaging in occasional binge drinking episodes and cavorting with prostitutes during overseas trips. As a result, in some minds, the Secret Service’s image seems on a trajectory towards the wretched image the public holds of other government bodies – such as Congress, just to name one.
It is no secret that the Secret Service is in a serious slump right now. Its personnel level is down by about ten per cent from its earlier 6,900 level even as its responsibilities and challenges keep growing. Its most recent director was effectively forced to resign as a result of these cumulative scandals and failures – and subsequent after effects. This eventually included revelations that the Secret Service took its good old sweet time in informing the president and his wife that their windows had been shot at. And if that hadn’t been enough, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson’s testimony to a congressional committee about all these things went so excruciatingly badly for her in a hearing about this that she was virtually escorted out of her office.
The Secret Service had first been established over a hundred and fifty years ago to chase down counterfeiters, rather than protect presidents. Privately hired Pinkerton Guards, for example, had protected Abraham Lincoln – except for one fateful theatre party. The Secret Service finally assumed responsibility for the presidential protection detail after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. In the aftermath of 9/11, this agency was moved out of the Treasury Department’s ambit and into the newly established Homeland Security Department. Over the years, the extension of its coverage to a would-be presidential candidate has often come to be the real mark that said individual had gained a serious chance of capturing a party’s nomination – or of being an outsider candidate who was on the way of becoming a major spoiler candidate, such as George Wallace in 1968.
All of this protective coverage of the president and first lady (and their minor children) is meant to be as unobtrusive as possible, even as it is supposed to throw an impenetrable blanket – or impervious protective bubble – of coverage over the president and his (or her) family. In recent years, especially, there has sometimes been a tug of war between some presidents and their protective details. Whenever Bill Clinton went off on a jog through Washington and then, on a whim and without the usual advance sweep through the building to ensure there were no assassins under a table, decided to swing by a McDonalds, a donut shop or Ben’s Chilli Bowl for an unplanned carbo-loading snack, his Secret Service detail was decidedly not amused.
In Washington, DC, of course, it is not just the Secret Service that provides protection to the president in some way. A few years ago, the Washington Post inventoried all of the various police forces in the city and came up with nearly thirty distinct organisations. Some have very specific tasks such as serving as the subway system’s police force or the role of the National Park Service Police that patrols key city parks, and, of course, there is the capital’s own Metro Police force as well. Some of these various units end up with some role in protecting the White House.
Not surprisingly, they can overlap in their functions and operational areas – especially when something happens that impinges on the White House and its immediate grounds. But, despite these many miscellaneous forces, ultimately the Secret Service is the final arbiter for the chief executive – despite what those two flicks, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, might have credulous cinema audiences believe.
And besides the actual physical protection – or the securing of sites that will be visited in the future by a travelling president – unsurprisingly, the Secret Service routinely evaluates all those mailed in, phoned in, and emailed threats against the First Family. And takes follow-up action with local police and the FBI, whenever it deems the threat to be a credible one. They look at literally thousands of supposed threats a year – even if most of them come from people who really are looking for attention or are charter members of the tin foil helmet brigade.
While the Secret Service does not give out actual specifics, knowledgeable observers have said that since Barack Obama became president, the number of threats received went up. In part, perhaps, this could be attributed to the tough economic conditions he came into office with, or because of the general rise in angry people more generally as a result of some hard times. But it would foolish to ignore the question of race entirely in all of this.
In the wake of the Secret Service’s now embarrassingly public lapses, some Americans are questioning whether in some subtle, subliminal way the guard of the presidential protection units was let down just a bit precisely because Obama and his family are black. This, in turn, plays on the trope that in America, problems in race relations are never all that far below the surface of things ostensibly not racial in character. In the run-up to the 2008 election, the question of whether a black man could, in fact, win the country’s highest office became a very fraught one topic.
Back when he was still a candidate, one of Obama’s most effective moments came when he had to address race as a core theme of the national discourse in the wake of the airing on television of the video of his own family’s pastor uttering some racially tinged remarks. His speech in Philadelphia on race, in response to this controversy, using his own genetic heritage as the lead-in to the racial larger saga was a masterful rhetorical effort – and it became a turning point in his campaign for the presidency. Once in the White House, he had to confront the issue all over again with that so-called “beer summit” when Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates, one of the country’s best known African American scholars, had been apprehended by a local policeman in Boston when Gates was mistaken for a housebreaker. Obama brought together Gates and the cop together over a beer, and he tried to use this as a national teaching moment for discussing race in America – although that was rather less successfully achieved than his earlier Philadelphia speech.
According to recent surveys, a significant majority of Americans continue to say the tenor of the nation’s black-white race relations remains relatively good (even though it has actually worsened somewhat, per the data, since Obama became president). And there have certainly been broad, far-reaching political changes in the country since the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act by Congress. Nevertheless, it remains the case that it only seems to take one highly politicised, violent incident that has pitted two people of different races – the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida or that of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri are simply the latest examples – to turn up the heat dramatically on the whole national tussle over race in America, all over again.
A recent article in the New York Times has encapsulated just how this strand has been playing out with regard to the Secret Service’s protection of a black president. It cited Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings (an African American) who discussed his interactions with angry (black) constituents who had been asking him why Obama wasn’t being better protected by his Secret Service agents?
As the Times described it, “The furore that led to this week’s resignation of the director of the Secret Service resonated deeply among blacks, outraged that those supposed to be guarding the first black president were somehow falling down on the job — and suspicious even without evidence that it may be deliberate. ‘It is something that is widespread in black circles,’ said Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, who like Mr Cummings is an African-American Democrat who has been approached repeatedly by voters expressing such a concern. ‘I’ve been hearing this for some time: “Well, the Secret Service, they’re trying to expose the president.” You hear a lot of that from African-Americans in particular.’ ”
While both congressmen have denied they believe this accusation to be true, they have not denied this view has been gaining currency among African Americans. As the Times went on to note, “But the profound doubts they [the two congressmen] have encountered emphasise the nation’s persistent racial divide and reflect an abiding fear for Mr Obama’s security that has unnerved blacks still mindful of the assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It is a longstanding fear.
“Colin L. Powell’s wife urged him not to run for president in 1996 out of fear that he might be targeted. And when Mr Obama took office in January 2009, the Secret Service recorded an alarming surge in threats against him. The threat level since then has actually fallen back to a rate more typical of previous presidents, officials said, but potential racial animosity persists in risk calculations by the Secret Service as it seeks to protect Mr Obama.” In fact, Obama gained Secret Service protection earlier in a presidential campaign than any previous candidate – in May 2007 – and his wife had publicly expressed her fears about those who might try to kill him – precisely because he is black.
The Secret Service admits that the threats were initially higher than in previous administrations, back at the early days of the Obama presidency, but it continues to deny threats against Obama had reached three or four times those recorded against other previous chief executives – as has been rumoured. Moreover, it now insists the numbers of those “we’re gonna get you” letters have now dropped back to “normal” levels.
But among some black Americans, the reported lapses by the Secret Service since Obama took office have reverberated in sync with widely listened-to radio talk show host Roland Martin’s comments, “One of the greatest fears of a first black president was harm being done to him. I can understand one or two [White House fence jumpers], but for five layers to fail in the White House of all places?”
Meanwhile, over on The Root, that well-read, black-oriented website, Charles D Ellison recently noted, “There could be only two reasons that Secret Service protection for President Barack Obama is slipping these days. Either agents missed the memo that he’s the first black president or they really are just that overwhelmed.” And Donald W Tucker, a black Secret Service agent who retired from the agency a quarter of a century ago has argued, “I would say over 75 percent of the African-American community are suspicious and think that could be a situation, based on all the other things they think has happened to President Obama because he’s an African-American, politically. They’re adding that to the pot.”
This conversation does not, obviously, prove the Secret Service is somehow lowering its guard while protecting President Obama, or that such a thing is a function of his racial identity. But the fact is that this presidential protection agency is clearly operating under growing stress – with a handful of embarrassing and potentially lethal security lapses in what must necessarily aim to be a zero defect workplace. And this comes along even as the national conversation among African Americans points to a sense of unease about the effectiveness of its efforts in protecting the country’s first black president. And that, of course, is a reflection of the way race, race relations, and equal treatment under the law still remain strongly contested turf in today’s America. DM
Photo: President Barack Obama pauses for applause and looks up towards the first lady’s box in the gallery as he delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing
Some Blacks See Secret Service as Flawed Shield for the President at the New York Times
Pew Research: African-Americans think race relations have worsened under Obama, a Reuters report of the most recent Pew survey;
Few Say Police Forces Nationally Do Well in Treating Races Equally at the Pew Research Center website;
Secret Service chief quits due to security lapses at the AP
In the 19th century, a different Secret Service, but not without controversy, a column by historian Charles Lane at the Washington Post
Pierson failed to provide fresh start for Secret Service that administration wanted at the Washington Post
Julia Pierson resigns as Secret Service director after series of security lapses at the Washington Post
Julia Pierson puts the ‘secret’ in Secret Service, column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post
Obama and the Secret Service at the Politico.com website