These are hectic times at the U.S. Secret Service, which faces a big-time security strain as the 2008 presidential campaign heats up.
The agency is planning to hire and train 103 agents to protect President Bush when he leaves office Jan. 20, 2009. And the scramble to replace him is expected to put an unprecedented burden on the Secret Service, which is already spending $44,000 a day on around-the-clock security for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Obama, who has talked openly about the possibility of getting shot, is the first of 18 major-party presidential candidates other than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to be assigned a security detail. Clinton has had such protection as a former first lady.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said the agency is “planning for historic demands” but has promised Congress it will continue to carry out its other duties during the 2008 campaign and beyond.
Overall, the Secret Service wants to spend more than $100 million on campaign protection in 2008, roughly $35 million more than it spent in 2004.
Sullivan said the agency expects Bush “to be active and maintain a high profile after he leaves office” in 18 months, necessitating the agency to prepare by hiring more agents now.
To handle the extra work for the presidential campaign, the department is planning to borrow 200 immigration officers and shift 250 Secret Service agents from investigations to security details. And the agency, which has a total of 6,500 employees, is proposing a $10 million cut in spending on investigations.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, said in an interview. “This is something that we look at every four years — these adjustments are necessary.”
Some members of Congress fear that Secret Service agents will have to spend less time working on high-profile financial crimes. The agents, who are part of the Homeland Security Department, specialize in electronic crimes and counterfeit and identity-theft cases.
“While I understand the need for protection and the demands of the looming campaign, I’m nervous a bit about the impact this will have on investigations,” said Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
Pitching his budget request to the subcommittee, Sullivan said that’s bound to happen.
“I would have to agree with you that our protective mission has taken away from our field people as far as their ability to be back in the field to conduct their investigations,” he said. “There is no denying that.”
The Secret Service protects the president and vice president, their families, former presidents, former first ladies, visiting foreign heads of state and government and major presidential and vice-presidential candidates and their spouses.
In addition, the agency will take the lead in securing the national political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn., next year. Adding to the workload is the fact that no sitting president or vice president is running as a candidate.
The Secret Service plans to use more than 500 agents to provide protection during the 2008 campaign. The agency won’t disclose how many agents it will use to protect specific candidates or events. But its plan will affect its 116 domestic offices. Agents and officers in field offices will be reassigned for three weeks from their investigative duties to work on campaign events, and those rotations will remain in effect until the end of the campaign.
“We knew going in that this was going to be a wide-open campaign and for that reason even a little more challenging than what we’re used to dealing with,” Zahren said. “But we’ll see how it plays out. … We’re ready, and that’s really all we can be.”
The Secret Service got an early start on the 2008 campaign. Obama has been assigned a security detail since May 3, more than eight months before the first votes will be cast in the Iowa caucuses. That’s the earliest a presidential candidate has ever qualified for protection.
Major presidential candidates and their spouses generally do not qualify for protection until 120 days before a general election, but there have been exceptions. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democrat, received protection in 1984 and 1988 after receiving threats during his presidential runs. Decisions to provide early protection are made by a special five-member committee, made up of top House and Senate leaders of both parties.