The Secret Service used to value POTUS a little more

obama-header2My first experience with the Secret Service came in 1998. A cub reporter for The News Virginian in Waynesboro, Va., I got the assignment to cover a visit by President Bill Clinton to Wintergreen, just down the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Our team – photographer Amanda West and me – knew ahead of time what we were in for. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were flying in by helicopter (separate helicopters, of course) to a makeshift airfield in Nellysford at the foot of Wintergreen to get into unmarked SUVs (also separate) for a Democratic Party event, and once that event, closed press, was done, they were going to get back into separate SUVs back to the airfield, back on the choppers, and then head back to Washington.

For us, that meant a day, literally, all day, about an eight-hour shift, of hanging around this makeshift airfield, which was otherwise just a really big field that was perfect for the occasion of allowing for landings and takeoffs of helicopters, doing nothing in particular for about 99 percent of this period of time, on the off-chance that we might get a quick glimpse of Clinton, Gore or somebody that looked vaguely like them.

For this privilege, no access, nowhere near the president, nowhere near the vice president, nowhere near anybody remotely important, we had to apply for credentials through the White House, undergo a background check, arrive super early at the location, submit to a thorough search, have our bags sniffed by dogs trained in the finer points of bomb-detection, and once we were in, we were herded to a riser set out in the middle of the field and told not to stray too far, because the marksmen aligned around the perimeter tend to get itchy trigger fingers whenever people aren’t where they’re supposed to be when POTUS was in the vicinity.

Contrast that access to what the crazy guy who jumped the fence at the White House recently was able to get for himself. Dude jumped the fence, ran through the front door, which was unlocked, and basically had his choice of things to do once inside before being tackled by an off-duty agent.

I’ve been in the White House once. It wasn’t nearly as easy for me to get in. The year was 2002. president bush was hosting a tee-ball game pitting two teams of disabled young baseball players, one of which happened to hail from Waynesboro. Once word came down that the game had been scheduled, I went through the process as with the Wintergreen event, applying for credentials, undergoing the background check.

Arriving at the White House on the appointed day, a Sunday, I was dismayed to learn that my name wasn’t in the security system as having been granted access for the day. This is pre-smartphones, so I called back to the home office on my cell to get my wife to track down whatever she could in the form of a contact who could vouch that I had been properly vetted, credentialed, the rest.

Turned out that I had been in the system all along; I was just 15 minutes early, and the system didn’t spit out to the officer on duty at the press gate that I was 15 minutes early. Crisis averted for me, I got in, got to cover the game, from a distance. The local reporters covering the game for the folks back home in Virginia and New Jersey were put in a restricted area down around the foul pole in left field, nowhere near President Bush, which was fine, because we were there.

I had several opportunities in 2008 to encounter the Secret Service again, covering campaign events for Barack Obama in Roanoke, Richmond and Harrisonburg. Things were a bit more lax at this point, which I chalked up at the time to the fact that Obama was a presidential candidate, not POTUS himself. Still, credentialing was easy, access was granted, the bomb-sniffing dogs were gone. Still didn’t have access directly to the man of the hour, but it was a very different experience for me in ’08.

One thing that stuck with me from that fall was the event in Harrisonburg a week before the election. There were many thousands more people who wanted to get into the event than there was room in the Convocation Center at JMU to accommodate the crush. A friend of mine was able to get no closer than the motorcade route out of the Convo Center, which strolls along a winding road into an area with a run of strip malls. Her photos from the day had scores of people getting close, too close, if you ask me, access to the motorcade, and I remember wondering to myself at the time if the people along the route had been vetted for security purposes the way the people who had gotten into the event had, and I knew the answer was no.

The fence jumper, the security guard in Atlanta with a rap sheet and a gun in the elevator, even the reality-show doofuses who crashed a White House state dinner a couple of years ago – something is clearly off with the way the Secret Service treats POTUS even compared to the approach taken just a few years ago. Congress is right to be steaming mad at the folks in charge, demanding change, getting heads rolling and the rest. But I’d suggest here that while the incidents that have hit the news are recent, the problem is much more systemic than just being a couple of recent incidents.

We’re fortunate that no attempts have been made on the life of a POTUS since 1981. Leaders of national governments across the world are targets for all sorts, from the politically motivated to the simply mentally ill. Whatever the motivation of the attacker, success has consequences far beyond the immediate, if our lingering ongoing national conversation about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is any indication.

There’s no margin for error here. Get it right 100 percent of the time, and err on the side of extreme caution. We’re not seeing that now out of the Secret Service, and that’s unacceptable.

– Column by Chris Graham



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